Teachers outraged; Cops believe no crime committed
Valdez City Schools Custodian Supervisor John Vergere and custodian Steve Winn tendered their resignations to the district superintendent, Jacob Jensen, early Friday morning after it was revealed the pair was involved with planting hidden video cameras--one in the teachers’ lounge at George Gilson Junior High School and one in a janitor’s closet at Valdez High School.
Jensen said he was shocked and outraged at the discovery and would never have allowed secret surveillance of any kind to occur on school property.
The discovery of the cameras was made Tuesday evening, April 17, when a custodian at Gilson Junior High called principal Rod Morrison at his home saying she believed she had found a camera hidden in a ceiling tile directly above a computer, which is often used by custodial staff.
Morrison said he rushed to the school where he and the custodian did indeed find a well hidden camera- often referred to as a pinhole camera - with its lens pointing directly down to a seat in front of the computer.
“’I can’t believe I just found that,’” Morrison quoted himself as saying in the first minutes after the discovery of the first camera.
Morrison says he immediately called Bill Comer, Valdez Police Chief, and Superintendent Jensen.
A second video camera was found in one of the many custodial closets at Valdez High School. That camera was hidden in a digital clock.
Jensen says the camera hidden in the clock was found after he asked another custodial staff member if he knew anything about cameras hidden in the schools. The custodian knew all about the cameras and led the administrators to the camera built into a clock inside the custodial closet.
Both cameras were connected to hidden computers where images from the cameras were downloaded.
Jensen said he turned the cameras and computers over to Valdez Police the next morning, along with a number of discs believed to contain digital images collected by the cameras.
The fact Jensen had overnight possession of the cameras and other evidence has fueled suspicions of many school employees that there is more to the story than administrators are saying.
Comer said he called the district attorney’s office at 8 p.m. Tuesday evening to see what – if any - criminal offences were likely to have occurred and believes Jensen has handled the situation properly.
“He’s been taking corrective actions as best he can,” Comer said, and stressed that he believed “no compromising photos or videos,” were taken.
A preliminary investigation by the school district and police has revealed the alleged targets of the spying to be custodial staff that supervisors suspected of illicit computer use during work hours and possible petty thefts at Valdez High School.
Comer described the images viewed so far as “hokey and cheesy stuff” and all evidence collected so far points fingers directly at a custodial supervisor spying on other custodial staff.
While the legality of the hidden cameras is in question, Comer said he believes the hidden cameras did not constitute a criminal act.
He also said that unless it can be determined the images were used to extort, coerce or in any way blackmail other people, no criminal offence occurred, though civil legal action could come into play.
“They (the district attorney’s office) agree with me,” Comer said, “There is not a crime per se.”
He also said his department is conducting a “courtesy investigation” to help the district sort out the situation as he currently does not have evidence of criminal offenses.
“It’s a personnel issue at the schools,” Comer said.
Many teachers and other school staff have told other media outlets they believe there may have been numerous cameras hidden throughout the district’s three schools though no evidence to support that allegation has surfaced.
However, numerous witnesses say the hidden camera found in the custodial closet of Valdez High School was disguised as a digital clock. It is claimed the same clock had been located in the Gilson Junior High teacher’s lounge – some say as few as two days before it was discovered in the custodial closet at Valdez High School.
It is unknown how long the camera-in-the-clock had been located in the Gilson Junior High teacher’s lounge. It is also unknown at this point how or when either camera was prompted to record.
Jensen first said he believed the video cameras were set to take periodic still photos either on a timer or a motion sensor, but Comer said evidence in police possession shows actual video images.
“It’s pretty low-grade video equipment,” Comer said.
Staff privacy in the teachers’ lounge is only the tip of the iceberg at the junior high.
The room often doubles as a testing room for students. Two weeks ago, April 3-5, some students took mandatory Standards Based Assessments tests in the room and electronic monitoring is strictly forbidden by state testing standards. It is also unclear at this point whether or not the secret cameras were in the room at the time of the testing and if so, whether or not students were recorded during the testing.
“We do a lot of things in there,” one staff member said who asked for anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject. “We also have teams that come over and sleep in that room,” the staff member said. “That leaves a lot of questions.”
Students visiting Valdez from other school districts have also used the room as makeshift sleeping accommodations, causing further worry among school officials and teachers.
District officials and police have stressed that it is highly unlikely students were targeted or recorded by the cameras and urged parents to talk to teachers with any concerns.
Assurances by Jensen and other top school officials that teachers and students were not targeted or taped appears to have done little to reassure educators, many of whom made strong telephone statements to TV reporters accusing the district of having large numbers of cameras planted throughout the schools and violating trust.
Comer said Valdez police made a sweep of the junior and senior high schools Wednesday night at Jensen’s request and no evidence of additional surveillance equipment of any kind was found.
“We had our maintenance guys check everything,” Morrison said, and he believes the schools are free of electronic surveillance devices.
Dr. Elizabeth Balcerek, principal at Valdez High School agreed with Morrison.
Christopher Bennett, principal of Hermon Hutchens Elementary School stated that he believes no recording devices of any kind are or have been placed at his school.
“We found no evidence there,” Bennett said, “No one’s found anything.”