A California school superintendent has been charged with felony eavesdropping for installing a hidden video camera in a principal’s office.

Craig Drennan, superintendent of the Modoc Joint Unified School District, was charged by Modoc County District Attorney Tom Buckwalter May 11 after police discovered the video camera in a fake smoke detector in Modoc High School Principal Dewey Pasquini’s office.

Drennan said he installed the camera under the guidelines of the school district’s lawyer in an effort catch someone who had apparently rifled through personnel files in Pasquini’s office. Because the camera recorded only video images and not sound, Drennan is confident the charge won’t stick.

“I don’t understand the charge,” said Drennan, now on paid administrative leave. “As I understand the (penal) code and the case law, eavesdropping has to involve sound, and it has to involve intent. There was no sound, and there was no intent.”

Reached at his home in Alturas, Calif., Drennan told eSchool News that he didn’t inform the principal because he wanted to ensure that as few people knew about the camera as possible.

“When you put in a surveillance camera, you only want to tell the people that need to know,” he said. “I believe that by telling him, the surveillance would have been ineffective.”

And the law might be on Drennan’s side.

Eavesdropping laws vary by state. In California, the penal code refers to the recording of “confidential communication,” not video-only surveillance.

“I believe that I acted properly, legal counsel was consulted prior to it being put in, as was the school board president, and I believe that, at least according to our school attorney, (the charge) will be dismissed,” Drennan said.

“It’s pretty standard procedure in lots of industries that when you think there’s a security problem, you have a secret camera installed,” he added.

Legal or not, however, the idea doesn’t sit well with Principal Pasquini.

“I feel especially betrayed. It never occurred to me anybody would do this. It caught me by surprise,” Pasquini said after the charges were filed.

“It’s always been considered a place where people could have privacy,” he said, referring to his private office. “The superintendent and I haven’t always seen eye-to-eye, which is probably a reason for the video.”

Drennan insists he was only trying to protect his principal.

Bill Hall, who was president of the district’s board of trustees when the camera was installed, said he didn’t have a problem with the superintendent’s plan, because Drennan told him he had spoken with the school district’s attorney, who said Drennan had the authority to install it.

Acting school board President Sean Curtis said Drennan has been placed on paid administrative leave pending the result of the criminal charges. But even if Drennan beats the charges, Curtis said the board will have to decide whether to bring him back.

Opinions on the situation within the community are wide-ranging, he said.

Some people would “prefer he be gone, regardless of whether his actions were legal or illegal,” Curtis said. The Modoc Teachers Association, for example, has asked the school board to resolve “this breach of trust.”

“As a teacher, it’s an Orwellian feeling,” said Patti Carpenter, spokeswoman for the teachers association. “Do we have to worry that ‘Big Brother’ is there? We should be able to do the jobs we do with the trust of the administration.”

Acting on a tip from an unnamed citizen, Chief of Police Larry Pickett said he learned the school district spent $4,500 to have the camera installed by a Redding, Calif., alarm company.

The camera was discovered by police May 5.

It was connected to a videotape recorder in the attic above the boys’ restroom, where a maintenance man installed a new tape at 5 a.m. daily and delivered the previous day’s tape to Drennan’s office.

Pickett said Drennan told him that the tapes contained no evidence of wrongdoing in Pasquini’s office and that he had ordered the tapes destroyed.

Drennan faces a maximum three-year prison sentence if convicted.