Big Brother was watching at Cascade High—until staff kicked him out.
by Tim Walker
William S. Burroughs may have been right when he defined paranoia as “sometimes just having all the facts.” With the intrusion of surveillance technology into our daily lives, it’s not hard nowadays to be unduly suspicious that we are being monitored. We think we are being watched, because we probably are—although we tend to expect surveillance in some places more than others.
Staff at Cascade High School in Everett, Washington, had no reason to believe their classrooms were one of those places. In June 2007, however, two teachers were slowly growing more suspicious. On what was an otherwise routine snow make-up day, art teacher Yvonne Linnebary and English teacher Steven Garmanian took turns standing on a stool to peer at a mysterious object on the ceiling. It was grayish and conical, about seven inches long, with what looked like some sort of lens on the bottom.
What on earth is that thing? wondered Garmanian. Some sort of sophisticated smoke detector?
The classroom had belonged to Kay Powers, a popular, 30-year veteran journalism teacher. Days before, the district had placed Powers on administrative leave, pending the completion of an investigation into whether she had used school property to help students produce a non-school newspaper.
“We became more suspicious,” recalls Garmanian, “that what we had been looking at was some sort of video surveillance device, perhaps used to monitor Kay.”
By the following Monday morning, the camera had disappeared, leaving a mere scratch on the ceiling as the only physical evidence of its existence.
But Garmanian and Linnebary had already notified their union building rep, and Linnebary produced detailed sketches. An investigation would eventually reveal that the mystery device was in fact a $2,000 digital video camera, complete with infrared motion sensor, ordered secretly by the Everett school district to monitor Kay Powers’s classroom.
“The district was spying,” says Kim Mead of the Everett Education Association (EEA). “It was outrageous and shows how technology can be used to create fear and mistrust among staff and students.”
Cameras are everywhere in public schools—in the halls, cafeterias, playgrounds, parking lots, and even classrooms. Because students and staff alike don’t have a “reasonable” expectation of privacy in these public spaces, the presence of video cameras does not generally constitute a Fourth Amendment violation.
Surveillance cameras are still considered by many to be an unwelcome intrusion, but perhaps a necessary one to protect students and staff. Critics, however, fear this standard can be—and has been—exploited. In Everett, EEA believes the district used the protective shield of “student safety” as it retaliated against a teacher.
In Spring 2007, Powers, a staunch advocate of free speech, publicly supported a student lawsuit to establish Everett school newspapers as “student forums,” which would have exempted them from administrative “prior review.” In April, the district charged Powers with the “unauthorized use of district facilities and equipment” in helping Cascade High students produce The Free Stehekin, an unofficial school newspaper. After a six-month investigation, she was fired.
Student safety, according to Superintendent Carol Whitehead, had been jeopardized.
Powers concedes that there were isolated incidents when students may have used school equipment. “But work on the paper was conducted off-campus,” she adds. “We worked at coffee shops and partnered with community organizations. We were very careful about that.”
EEA says the charges were trumped up, and the punishment was not proportionate to the alleged infraction. The much more serious offense, says Kim Mead, was committed by the district.
“They secretly installed a video camera in her classroom,” says Mead. “It was done without any prior notification or consultation and should have been bargained with the Association. It was very disturbing.”
After taking up Powers’s case, union leaders informed the administration that they had evidence that it had used video surveillance—a charge quickly denied by Superintendent Whitehead.
But on April 11, 2008, only days before Powers’s appeal was scheduled at an open hearing, the district suddenly announced it was reinstating her and approving back pay.
It would take another month, however, before Whitehead admitted what many at Cascade High already knew: From May 10 to June 11, 2007, the district used a video surveillance camera to secretly tape Powers’s classroom. Whitehead insisted that no audio was recorded (which would have been a clear violation of the law). Neither the camera nor any single one of its recordings, however, was ever recovered.
Had the hearing gone forward, district officials faced the prospect of having to testify under oath about secret surveillance, which undoubtedly would have stoked the local news media’s already significant interest in the case. Whitehead said the settlement was reached for strictly financial reasons.
In June 2008, Whitehead retired early, and Powers prepared for her final year of teaching (at 66, she says she is ready for retirement). She chose to finish her career at Henry M. Jackson High School.
The admission about the secret video surveillance prompted Everett teachers to file a wrongful labor practice action with the state. In January 2009, Everett district schools, in a settlement with EEA, pledged to ban video cameras from secretly recording classroom activity. Installation of any camera in a classroom, according to the settlement, would not be allowed “without the prior written approval of the union president.”
Officials have expressed hope that the trust that has been frayed by the Powers investigation will be restored. Although encouraged, some staff members say the shroud of secrecy and suspicion that enveloped Cascade High and nearby schools may take a while to shake off.
“Looking back, we have to wonder,” says Steve Garmanian. “What else was going on that we didn’t discover? Were they reading our emails? In what other ways were our lives at school being recorded?”
He pauses. “Or maybe I’m just being paranoid.”
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Illustration: james Yang
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Is Big Brother Watching You?
What are some of your experiences with surveillance? Do you feel you are being watched or monitored in some other way? Are cameras and other devices put to good use or are they a menace? Or is it something we all have to live with?