The 16 clandestine surveillance cameras set up in elementary classrooms in Palmdale, Calif., didn’t catch any thieves, but the superintendent did catch hell from the teachers’ union when it learned teachers were being secretly videotaped. A school district spokeswoman says the surreptitious taping was done by mistake and that the cameras all have been pulled from the classrooms.
Superintendent Nancy Smith allegedly made the $12,000 camera purchase without school board approval and then installed the equipment without telling teachers and parents, union officials charged.
“Originally, there were concerns about the cameras being in the classroom and why,” union President Kris Clarke told local reporters. “Then the kindergarten teachers were upset because they remembered they had changed clothes in the classrooms.”
The cameras were discovered last August, when a kindergarten teacher at Mesquite Elementary School noticed extra wires snaking up a classroom wall and disappearing under a ceiling tile. Curious, she called a colleague, who climbed a ladder and found the wires connected to a video recorder taping the activities in that room and an adjacent class.
But knowledge of the cameras didn’t become public until Feb. 3, when members of the Palmdale Elementary Teachers Association confronted Smith at a school board meeting. Armed with purchase orders that were made out for fire equipment instead of surveillance cameras, union officials and parents launched their objections.
At the board meeting, Smith defended the purchase and installation of the equipment, saying it was kept secret because district officials did not want to tip off would-be thieves.
The cameras were installed in six schools last spring and were programmed to run from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m., school officials said. When school let out for summer vacation, the cameras ran for 24 hours on a continuous loop.
At the start of the current school year, maintenance workers were supposed to have reset the cameras to the original program.
“Maintenance forgot to go and change the time on the video camera at Mesquite,” said Diana Beard-Williams, a school district spokeswoman. “It never occurred to us to double-check. The camera was running 24 hours instead of only in the evening. As soon as we found out, the superintendent immediately dispatched someone there to take care of the situation.”
“The cameras were put in because of an extensive amount of theft and vandalism in the district,” Beard-Williams added. “It had nothing to do with monitoring teachers, but everything to do with protecting property.”
Still, union officials maintain the cameras shouldn’t have been in the classroom in the first place without teachers’ and parents’ knowledge. They also question why the equipment was purchased without board approval. “We have been trying to build a trusting relationship with the board, and now we feel betrayed and deceived,” Clarke said.
Trustee Sheldon Epstein agreed. “They had indicated the purchase was made because of thefts at schools and felt it was necessary, in order to apprehend those that were involved, to go through this process,” Epstein said. “We certainly do not condone that type of transaction. I, for one, am extremely upset over the manner in which it was done. I believe that to operate in such a clandestine manner betrays the trust of the board.’
The cameras have since been removed from the classrooms and are locked up in Smith’s office. No thieves were ever caught on videotape, school officials said.