Several teachers saw a mysterious object on the ceiling of a fired Cascade High School teacher’s classroom last year, and their union now is convinced it was a secret surveillance camera.
The union believes the school district spied on English and journalism teacher Kay Powers before she was fired in November. As part of their efforts to get her job back, Powers’ attorneys planned to argue that the district installed a hidden camera to monitor her classroom.
On April 11, just days before the case was going to a public hearing, the school district and Powers settled, giving her a new teaching assignment in the district.
Still, the cone-shaped object in the ceiling leaves unanswered questions that nag Powers’ former colleagues. They ask: Was there a secret camera in Powers’ room last spring while she was being investigated for helping students publish an underground newspaper?
Why did it appear around the time Powers was being investigated and disappear shortly after she was placed on administrative leave?
“There are some puzzling pieces to this mystery,” teacher Steve Garmanian said. “Why was this (object) installed? What was it? And why was it removed?”
The Everett School District and an investigator hired by the district deny that there was ever a secret surveillance device used to spy on Powers. They’ve yet to explain what the device was, however.
“There was no surveillance of her classroom,” said the district’s attorney, Valerie Hughes, just days before Powers’ hearing.
District leaders would not answer specific questions Monday, April 21, about the object that the union alleges was a camera. They released a 10-paragraph statement from Superintendent Carol Whitehead that defended the district’s handling of the controversy.
“Since the beginning, Ms. Powers and her advisors have used the media to try her case. The media has presented this case as a freedom of speech issue although the evidence is clear Ms. Powers’ insubordinate behavior had nothing to do with freedom of speech,” Whitehead said in the statement.
Kim Mead, president of the Everett Education Association, is convinced the district was spying.
“It’s not something I even wanted to believe,” Mead said. “It was gut-wrenching. I believe it now.”
As part of the settlement reached April 11, Powers will return to teaching English on Monday, April 28, at Henry M. Jackson High School in Mill Creek and must resign at the end of the 2008-09 school year. By then, she will be 66 years old.
The district was prepared to argue that Powers had helped students produce an underground paper, The Free Stehekin, during school hours and on school computers despite being ordered not to do so.
Attorneys for Powers were ready to argue that the district was retaliating against her for supporting Everett High School students in a federal court case involving The Kodak student newspaper.
The district earlier this year settled The Kodak lawsuit, which was filed in 2005 after administrators demanded to review each issue before publication.
District leaders met with an investigator May 21 to set up the investigation against Powers, records show. That was just days after Powers filed her statement with the court supporting the Kodak editors’ position, said Mitch Cogdill, one of Powers attorneys.
Over the next three weeks, several teachers saw an object they couldn’t identify on the ceiling of Powers’ classroom. They had not observed it before.
Math teacher Eric Smith used Powers’ room to teach geometry one period a day. He said his students pointed the object out to him for the first time in late May. Powers was placed on leave June 1.
On Friday, June 8, teacher Yvonne Linnebary noticed the object on the ceiling when she went into the classroom to help Powers’ replacement learn about online grading software.
She said the object was between light fixtures in the front of the classroom. She described it as a grayish beige plastic casing about six to seven inches long with a glass rectangle on the bottom.
“I thought, ‘I don’t have one of those in my room,’” she said. “I looked all over my ceiling. I thought, ‘I wonder what that is?’”
Linnebary looked in other rooms to see if she could find a similar object, but could not.
On Saturday, June 9, a make-up day for teachers after winter snows, Linnebary showed the object to English teacher Steven Garmanian.
“We looked at it and we pointed at it and we made it quite apparent we had observed it,” Garmanian said.
On Monday, June 11, Linnebary and Garmanian escorted fellow teacher and building union representative Kevin Grayum into Powers’ room to show him the object, but it was gone. What they saw in its place was a scratch on a ceiling tile.
“When it disappeared, that’s what made me suspicious,” Linnebary said.
Linnebary, who teaches photography, had planned to take a photo of the object. Instead, she sketched pictures of it from her memory.
Earlier this month, as Powers’ hearing neared, one of her attorneys, Doug Wartelle, showed Linnebary’s drawings to private investigator Gordon Mitchell, a licensed electrical engineer with expertise in security systems.
Mitchell identified the object in the drawing as an old-style “passive infrared motion sensor” that was “commonly used for video concealments,” Wartelle said.
“We know beyond any degree of certainty we could prove there was at least video intrusion here,” Cogdill said. “We don’t know if it included audio intrusion.”
Either way, in a case such as this, using a secret recording device would have violated state and federal laws along with public trust, Cogdill said.
“It’s just wrong,” he said.
From the beginning, the school district has denied using hidden recording equipment in Powers’ classroom.
Caroline Lacey, the investigator hired by the district, said in a deposition that she was never in Powers’ classroom, had no recollection of a recording device being used and was never told of the district using one.
As a part of its investigation, the district did put together a binder with screen shots — captured images of the school computer screen — documenting that then-Free Stehekin editor David Whittemore used a Cascade computer to download files for the newspaper from his e-mail account onto a personal laptop. Whittemore was suspended.
Lacey also said she destroyed copies of evidence she did not include in her report.
“In each case that I do, when I’ve delivered my report, I destroy anything but the report and the attachments,” she said during her deposition.
The Everett School Board received a three-page, single-spaced letter last June from 23 Cascade teachers. In it, they said: “There is evidence to suggest that surveillance equipment was installed in Kay Powers’ classroom.”
School board President Karen Madsen remembers receiving the letter. “We have not discussed it as a board,” she said.
Superintendent Whitehead recently said she relied on Lacey’s report in her decision to fire Powers and that the teacher refused to discuss the problem.
“I attempted many times to talk with Ms. Powers about her actions. Repeatedly, she refused my invitations,” she said.
Cascade teachers, union leaders and Powers’ attorneys say the tide turned toward a settlement April 8 after they told the district they planned to bring an expert to testify about what teachers say they saw on the ceiling of Powers’ classroom.
“We told them about this,” Wartelle said. “We never did get an explanation and, two days later, the case was settled.”
In her statement, Whitehead said the settlement was a pragmatic alternative to costly litigation and appeals.
“The Everett School District settled with Ms. Powers because it is not in the best interest of the District to continue litigation,” she wrote.
Eric Stevick writes for the Herald of Everett.