Public and staff urge board to hire outside investigator
Attendees at a special work session held by the board of education urged the board to hire an impartial third party investigator to probe further into the events surrounding the discovery of hidden cameras in Gilson Junior High and Valdez High School last April.
“What I’ve heard so far doesn’t satisfy me at all,” parent Terry DeLay told the board during public testimony on the incident, ”I’m not happy with what I’ve heard at all.”
The district superintendent, Jacob Jensen, presented the results of a police and district investigation into the matter, and answered questions from the board, school employees and parents during a one hour meeting held at the Valdez High School cafeteria Monday night.
The meeting came over a month after school custodian Sue Willie found a pinhole camera hidden in a ceiling tile at Gilson Junior High School in the teachers’ lounge. It was recording above a computer workplace, ostensibly in hopes of catching janitors goofing off on the computer. Indignation spread when a second camera hidden in a clock was discovered in a custodial closet at Valdez High School. It was later learned the same camera had been located in the teacher lounge at the junior high days before it was found at the high school.
“My career is on the line,” GJH teacher Kip Norris told the board.
Norris held a teacher contract he had signed regarding testing rules and regulations. Teachers and educators were very concerned about the cameras in the lounge due to the fact the room has been used to test some students. It had also doubled as a place for visiting sports teams to sleep at night.
The report on the matter issued by Bill Comer, Valdez Police Chief,found no criminal acts in the recordings. The images on the computers hooked up to the cameras were mostly set to record between 3 p.m. and midnight and had no audio capabilities.
Comer’s report did find the cameras had recorded video of non-custodial staff, including teachers, students, visiting coaches from out-of-town schools and others.
“While the recordings are plentiful and controversial, the cameras were not placed in areas likely to capture people in various states of undress, performing intimate bodily functions, or in areas with an enhanced degree of privacy,” Comer’s report said. “At this point, unless additional information is received, this matter is solely an administrative issue with the Valdez City School District. No evidence of a criminal act was discovered during the review of the laptops and CDs.”
The report did little to mollify some attendees.
Rumors of additional cameras throughout district schools became rife after the discovery was made public April 18. Searches for additional cameras or other recording devices made by school administrators and Valdez Police the next day found no additional spyware, though some speculated recording devices could have been removed by custodial staff during the night or early morning.
“I think those are questions we need answered,” teacher Barb Lyons told the board.
Maintenance staffer Chris Karna – a father of two teen-aged daughters – said he was worried sick when he found out about the cameras and was greatly concerned about student privacy, prompting him to personally search the VHS locker room with a fine-tooth comb.
“Nobody knows the building like we do,” Karna said, “I was looking, I was really looking.”
He found no additional cameras.
During Jensen’s presentation, he said he was disheartened to find out from others during the investigation that rumors of a camera in the school had circulated for some time, but that no one ever came forward to either the school administration or principals with the information.
“The staff would benefit from training dealing with harassment, intimidation, retaliation, discrimination to assure that everyone knows that communicating concerns will not be punished, but appreciated,” Jensen’s presentation said.
Jensen also apologized that more information about the finding was not quickly sent to parents and educators, citing fears of breaching confidentiality in personnel matters and admitted more information should have been distributed in a speedier manner.
Jensen again declined to name the employees who set up the cameras or new about them, but did disclose that two have resigned and one is “currently the subject of an ongoing personnel proceeding.”
The Valdez Star has learned independently that custodial supervisor John Vergere and Steve Nguyen resigned amidst the scandal. Nguyen’s name had been misspelled as Winn in a previous story.
Jensen also declined to identify who was under “ongoing personnel proceedings” or what those proceeding entail. However, it has been confirmed independently that district facilities director Ben Olds is the subject of the proceedings and is not currently on the job.
The board is expected to begin the process of instituting an electronic surveillance policy, which it currently lacks.