A jury has convicted a northern California superintendent of felony eavesdropping for installing a hidden video recorder in a principal’s office. The case highlights the legal ambiguities brought on by an increased use of electronic surveillance in the workplace.

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 former Modoc High School Principal Dewey Pasquini’s office (see eSchool News, July).

The jury took less than hour to find Drennan guilty of those charges Sept. 8. He faces up to three years in prison and a fine of up to $27,000, though Buckwalter said he would be surprised if the sentence involves prison time.

Superior Court Judge Larry Dryer scheduled a sentencing hearing for Oct. 12.

Drennan, who remains on paid administrative leave, 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. The school board president also was aware of the camera.

Drennan told eSchool News last spring that he didn’t think he was acting illegally, because the camera recorded only video images and not sound.

“I don’t understand the charge,” Drennan said at the time. “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.”

Eavesdropping laws vary by state. In California, the penal code refers to the recording of “confidential communication,” and does not specifically mention or exclude videotaping or audiovisual surveillance.

After the verdict, Drennan told reporters that he was surprised by the jury’s decision and that he planned to appeal.

Assumption of privacy

Acting on a tip from an unnamed citizen, police discovered the camera on May 5. 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 connected to a videotape recorder in the attic above the boys’ restroom, where the district’s maintenance chief testified he installed a new tape at 5 a.m. every day 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.

When reached at his home last spring, Drennan said 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.

“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 didn’t sit well with Principal Pasquini.

“I feel especially betrayed. It never occurred to me that 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.”

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 and had been given the OK to install it.

But eSchool News ethics and law columnist David Splitt had this view: Although there is no mention of videotaping or “visual” surveillance in the California law, the statute is so broadly worded that even “silent surveillance” might be unlawful.

“On the other hand, the introductory language in the statute specifically mentions ‘listening devices,'” Splitt said. “The appellate court will have to consider whether the law is limited to eavesdropping on ‘sounds,’ or whether any type of communication is covered.”

If the court finds that the law covers sign language and lip reading, as well as other nonverbal communication, the conviction could stand, Splitt said.

Drennan has been on administrative leave with full pay since May 13. At press time, Interim Superintendent Don Demsher said the district board had made no move to seek Drennan’s dismissal or to find a regular replacement.

Modoc High School