The Everett School District hoped hiring somebody to conduct an independent investigation of its 2007 use of a hidden surveillance camera in a teacher’s classroom would put controversy to rest.
Instead, the probe has triggered questions of its own, including about the independence of the investigator, who also is an attorney who has represented the district in closely related legal matters.
A lack of records about the investigation has made it almost impossible to verify Seattle attorney Michael Patterson’s work, let alone determine the accuracy of what the school district said he discovered.
Patterson submitted no written report. More than two months later, he has not billed the district for his work. He also did not respond to repeated requests for an interview.
A request by The Herald that the school district provide all public records regarding Patterson’s investigation mostly turned up evidence that school officials, including Everett Superintendent Carol Whitehead, have taken pains to limit the creation of a paper trail.
The district has released almost nothing in writing about who knew what, and when, regarding the May 2007 decision to hide a surveillance camera in the Cascade High School classroom of English and journalism instructor Kay Powers. On Friday, the district said it could not say when Patterson was hired for the investigation.
Most of the records the district has handed over are e-mail messages and memos from Whitehead complaining about news reports. The Herald’s stories were inaccurate or ignored key information about the district’s “sincere efforts to present the facts,” she wrote.
According to the school officials, no notes, no interview summaries and no memos were developed to answer the lawyer’s questions about who authorized surveillance of Powers’ classroom.
The only document the school district has released detailing Patterson’s findings is a May 23 memo drafted by Whitehead. The memo was the first public acknowledgment that surveillance occurred in Powers’ classroom, something the district had previously denied. Whitehead’s memo also says no laws were broken.
Patterson was hired to question district administrators, including Whitehead, her memo says. It doesn’t say, as Whitehead later acknowledged in a statement to the school board, that she conferred with her staff about the camera before it was installed.
Whitehead’s summary of Patterson’s investigation is four paragraphs totalling about 160 words.
The private meeting
No more-detailed report exists because the attorney delivered his findings in a closed-door talk May 21 attended only by Whitehead and the school board, Everett schools spokeswoman Mary Waggoner said. The meeting with Patterson lasted about 90 minutes, according to school district records.
Under state law, school boards must conduct their business in public meetings. Exemptions are allowed, however. The school board determined it could talk about the surveillance controversy in executive session with Patterson because it was reviewing the performance of public employees and discussing “with legal counsel representing the agency potential litigation where public knowledge regarding the discussion is likely to result in an adverse legal or financial consequence to the agency,” records show.
In e-mails and other documents, Whitehead has offered conflicting descriptions of who ordered Patterson’s investigation — she herself or the school board. No record exists the board voted to authorize the investigation, something that would have had to occur in public.
Waggoner on Thursday offered this version of what happened:
“Dr. Whitehead advised the board that she believed it was necessary to conduct an investigation and that she would share the results with them. The board was not asked for their approval, and took no vote; they were simply advised. No vote was taken. No approval was sought or given.”
Waggoner said she couldn’t find a record that says when Patterson was hired. She said he was tapped for a number of reasons, including his experience with schools and investigations and because the district is “familiar with his work and confident in his abilities” as an attorney for an insurance pool the district uses to save money in liability insurance and legal fees.
“Mr. Patterson was asked to conduct the investigation and report to the superintendent and the board,” Waggoner said. “He determined that he wished to make an oral report, which he did. Dr. Whitehead was present at the executive session when he made his report. After the meeting, she wrote down what he reported and confirmed with Mr. Patterson that she had accurately captured the contents of his oral report.”
Mitch Cogdill, an Everett teachers union attorney who represented Powers, said a lack of notes or written report is an indicator Patterson was protecting attorney-client privilege rather than acting as an independent investigator. He said “there appears to be by the district a blurring of the difference” between lawyer and fact-finder.
Patterson “has been such a strong advocate and attorney for the district in the past,” Cogdill said. “Clearly, if the district wanted what one would call a transparent investigation, they would seek someone totally independent who does not have the district interests in mind, someone who would go into it with a new set of eyes.”
By choosing this path, the district didn’t “run the risk of getting an embarrassing report, especially if it was in writing,” Cogdill said.
Patterson and the school district have long worked closely together. He’s provided training to some of the district’s 1,700-employee staff on workplace legal issues and represented the district in federal lawsuits involving First Amendment issues.
One of Patterson’s cases focused on defending the district’s controversial decision to disallow an instrumental version of “Ave Maria” during a high school graduation. The other focused on the district’s insistence that school administrators have authority to review student newspapers prior to publication.
The dispute over student newspapers first was kindled in the newsroom of The Kodak at Everett High School. By 2007, it spread to Cascade, where teacher Powers wound up being monitored. Despite direct orders from Whitehead, Powers aided students in producing an “underground” newspaper using school equipment.
On Nov. 20, less than five months before he was hired to examine the district’s use of the camera in Powers’ classroom, Whitehead wrote a letter commending Patterson’s legal work on behalf of the Everett district. The letter was to the director of claims for the Washington Schools Risk Management Pool, which hires law firms to represent school districts that are being sued.
“That happens frequently in the business world, and if there were a letter of recommendation, that simply indicates the level of respect and professionalism we felt Mr. Patterson would bring to this task,” Waggoner said. “Would you hire someone you were not comfortable writing a recommendation for?”
The surveillance camera
The camera controversy emerged after the school district investigation into Powers’ activities. The district fired Powers after evidence showed she not only ignored Whitehead’s orders barring use of district equipment on the student paper, but also allowed a student editor to skip his other classes and opened her classroom to the boy in the evenings and on weekends. The student fell behind in school and was at risk of not graduating, district records show.
According to Whitehead’s account of Patterson’s investigation, the school district hired a security company to quietly install a surveillance camera in Powers’ classroom from May 10 to June 11, 2007. On May 16, Powers filed a statement in the Kodak lawsuit supporting student journalists.
After the district placed Powers on leave, teachers at Cascade wrote the school board, arguing there were more pressing issues than control over student publications. The teachers also were concerned about a device spotted in the ceiling of Powers’ classroom and feared there was some form of surveillance.
District officials repeatedly denied any surveillance occurred. In legal documents connected to Powers’ attempts to reclaim her job, the district insisted that questions about surveillance were off base because they assumed “that surveillance equipment was installed in appellant’s classroom when it was not.”
“The district states that there was no surveillance equipment installed in (Powers’) classroom,” wrote Valerie Hughes, a Seattle attorney who represents the district in myriad legal matters and was co-counsel on the Kodak case with Patterson.
It wasn’t until April that questions about surveillance at Cascade became a news story. The Herald wrote about the teachers’ concerns after Powers negotiated a settlement with the district allowing her to return to work until the end of the 2008-2009 school year. Although Whitehead and others insisted the district settled because it was financially prudent, Powers’ lawyers suggested district officials didn’t want to testify under oath about classroom surveillance. An expert witness was convinced it occurred.
In her May 23 letter about Patterson’s investigation, Whitehead said the surveillance was authorized by Karst Brandsma, deputy superintendent, and was justified because of Powers’ alleged misconduct and concern for student safety.
On May 27 Whitehead announced at a school board meeting that there was more to the story. She had discussed surveillance with Brandsma before the camera was installed. It was authorized for the hallway near Powers’ classroom to detect who was entering and leaving on nights and weekends, she said.
Patterson reportedly determined the company who installed the camera suggested that it be placed inside Powers’ classroom and directed toward the door.
The admissions about the camera came as the school district was poised to comply with a public records request from The Herald, seeking surveillance billing statements. The documents, released to the newspaper a few days later, confirmed close to $2,000 was spent to have Sonitrol Pacific temporarily install the camera at Cascade.
Joe Bullis, vice president of operations and general manager for Sonitrol, confirmed he was interviewed by Patterson. He said his company advised school officials to locate the camera in the classroom ceiling, pointing at the door.
“I can tell you categorically there was no audio involved,” Bullis said. Making secret audio recordings without a court’s permission is forbidden under state law, even for the police.
Whitehead’s summary of Patterson’s report said the video recordings from Powers’ classroom “were not used for any purpose, and their current whereabouts is unknown.”
The death threat
Whitehead last month announced that she will retire Sept. 1, months earlier than she’d planned. One reason she cited was her family’s concern over a death threat she said arrived in the school’s mail on April 23. That was the day after The Herald first reported questions about surveillance in Powers’ classroom.
Many people assumed the threat and the surveillance controversy were connected.
In a report she filed with Everett police, Whitehead pointed to an angry parent as a potential suspect, although she was quick to add “I do not know if there is any relevance to this issue.”
The district was required to provide the newspaper with a copy of Whitehead’s police statement under public records laws. The district initially said that no copies of the reported death threat letter, or its contents, were made. Later, the newspaper was supplied with an undated “note to file.” In it, a Whitehead administrative assistant acknowledged typing a “verbatim note” that memorialized the contents of the threat letter.
“This note was shredded later that same day,” she wrote. “We did not want to keep any copies of the death threat in our files.”
Waggoner said the record was destroyed “in response to the police department’s concern that all specifics about the threat remain secure elements of its investigation.”
“We did ask them to keep the investigation confidential,” Everett police Sgt. Robert Goetz said.
“None of the investigators recall at all telling them to not keep copies of anything that they had, or to destroy anything,” he added.
Reporter Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the Web
Everett Schools Superintendent Carol Whitehead’s e-mails and other records describing surveillance of a Cascade High School classroom appear with this story online at heraldnet.com.