Hidden Camera Controversy Leaves Valdez School With Unanswered Questions (KTVA.com Exclusive)
Parents, students and teachers left wondering who's watching
VALDEZ – After 29 years with the Valdez School District, teacher and coach Barb Lyons thought she had seen it all.
She wasn’t prepared for what happened Tuesday night. Leaving the gym at Gilson Junior High School around 7 p.m. after a night of basketball with her students, Lyons said she ran into two coworkers – Principal Rod Morrison and Sue, the junior high school’s evening custodian. In her hands, Sue held a small digital surveillance camera.
“They said, ‘Look what we just found in the staff lounge,’” Lyons said, recalling her shock when she realized what it was.
A quick search of the school revealed the camera, hidden in the ceiling of the staff lounge with a view of the computer, had been streaming video to a laptop computer set up in a nearby custodial closet. After school staff expanded the search to the high school, Lyons said they found another hidden surveillance camera and laptop set up in yet another custodial closet.
This time, Lyons recognized the camera: It had previously been set up on the desk in the junior high teacher’s lounge, disguised as a digital clock.
“It’s kind of beyond your wildest imagination that people would do something like this,” said Lyons.
With only 100 students, she said the tight-knit junior high school didn’t have a security system. People trusted each other, she said, so when district Superintendent Jacob Jensen told teachers he had no idea where the cameras or computers came from, emotions ran high.
“You’ve got some very angry teachers,” she said, adding the local teacher’s union had entered a contract negotiation year with the district. “Trust is not something that’s strong around here now.”
Jensen did not respond to interview requests Thursday, but told teachers in a written statement that two employees had been placed on unpaid administrative leave as a result of the incident. He called it a “personnel issue.”
For Jeri Devens, a Valdez High School graduate and mother of two senior students, there were other issues.
“As a parent, any time you hear ‘hidden video camera’ in close proximity to teenagers, it makes you nervous,” Devens said. “You want answers.”
Devens said she first heard about the cameras Wednesday afternoon, when her two teenagers returned from school and told her about the bewildered classroom conversations between teachers and students earlier that day.
“The kids and the teachers are saying there’s one in the sick room, they think there was one in girl’s locker room,” she said. “Of course, since it’s a small town, rumors are running rampant.”
While Lyons only saw two cameras Tuesday night, she said she, too, heard rumors of many more.
“We heard there was a massive scramble to remove cameras quickly the next morning,” she said.
Even cameras positioned in the staff room would have been privy to confidential discussions about students, as well as other private conversations. Devens said visiting sports teams would often stay in the room, sleeping and changing in assumed privacy.
Without any answers from district officials, Devens said she was left with several burning questions: who positioned the cameras, how long have they been there, what was recorded and why? Even though teachers said Valdez police seized the cameras and laptops the next day, Lyons said Jensen had first taken the equipment home with him overnight.
While the Valdez School District administration told teachers the investigation into the cameras was ongoing, Lyons said she’s unsatisfied by the explanation for what she called an “extreme violation” of privacy.
Devens said she considers them immoral, if not illegal.
“There just seems like there’s something very inappropriate about hidden cameras at schools,” she said. “Because it wasn’t handled by professionals, with any promise of confidentiality, is my teenage daughter on the internet?”
Valdez Police Chief William Comer could not be reached for comment Thursday.