Cameras catch kiss, raising questions
BRENT CHAMPACO; The News Tribune
Video cameras at Gig Harbor High School were installed to catch trespassers, fights, harassment – the stuff that threatens safety at the campus of 1,700 students.
The surveillance system has also helped administrators find and discipline students who break rules, such as leaving trash on a lunch table.
But the high school says it will tighten its own rules on security cameras after two female students were filmed kissing and holding hands.
Keith Nelson, the high school’s dean of students for almost two years, shared the footage with the parents of one of the girls. They have since transferred her to a school outside the Peninsula School District, officials said.
“It’s not our normal practice,” said Principal Greg Schellenberg. “It’s not going to happen again.”
The other girl, who remains at Gig Harbor High, says their privacy was invaded.
“We weren’t doing anything inappropriate, nothing anyone else wouldn’t do,” she said.
The girl, a 17-year-old senior, described the kiss as a quick “peck.”
The News Tribune is not naming her because she is a minor and her family feared retaliation. Her father works for the newspaper.
Nelson said the parents who transferred their daughter approached him before the kissing incident. They asked him to notify them of any out-of-the-ordinary behavior, he said.
A few weeks later, he was inside the busy high school commons area, where by chance he witnessed the kiss, he said. He went back to the security room, watched the footage and invited the parents to view it.
There’s no expectation of privacy when students are in a crowded place, Nelson said. And he would have acted the same way if it had been a boy and a girl kissing, he said.
The school district received a complaint from a student. It investigated Nelson for any pattern of improper camera use, said assistant superintendent Shannon Wiggs.
The district concluded earlier this month that Nelson didn’t violate policy and that the sharing of the footage with the girl’s parents was an isolated case, Wiggs said.
But the investigation prompted Schellenberg to tighten his policy on how school security cameras can be used. School staff members can now use footage only for security monitoring and to catch trespassers, fights, vandalism and similar violations, he said.
Kissing and other public displays of affection still technically violate the rules. But staff will first warn students before disciplining them on a second offense. Employees are also restricted from sharing footage in response to an open-ended parental request, which apparently happened in this case.
“The same information could have been portrayed to the family without the video,” Schellenberg said.
Gig Harbor has used security cameras for almost eight years. They were installed after the school had a rash of small bathroom fires, Nelson said.
The school has a total of 16 cameras, inside and outside. It installed eight of the cameras last summer, an upgrade worth about $13,000.
The images are transferred to a computer station in the office of the high school’s security guard. The computer isn’t monitored, and the hard drive erases the videos every 30 days.
Other area school districts that use security cameras say they’ve received few complaints.
The Clover Park School District has used cameras for evidence when parents have argued their students didn’t start a fight, vandalize a locker or commit other violations, said spokesman Rich Bartell.
All of the Tacoma School District’s middle and high schools have had cameras for the last five to 10 years. Spokeswoman Patti Holmgren said cameras are used mostly for security, not discipline.
But at Gig Harbor, some students and parents say the girls kissing episode wasn’t the only time the cameras have been used for something other than security.
Derek Lactaoen, chief editor of The Sound, the student newspaper, wrote a column earlier this month saying the school went too far. In addition to the controversial kiss, he wrote about the use of cameras to discipline students who left a mound of trash on a lunch table. Lactaoen told The News Tribune that the cameras are creating a Big Brother feel at school.
“Students are definitely thinking twice, and it’s a negative think twice,” he said.
David Potash, an 18-year-old senior, was one of the students disciplined for trash on the lunch table. He says the trash didn’t belong to him, and he didn’t eat lunch at that table.
Whatever the case, it isn’t the best use of the cameras, said his mother, Michele Reamey.
“That’s not what our tax dollars pay for,” she said. “Those cameras are for security. I think the lunch table is secure.”
The principal insists neither Nelson nor any other school staff member is spying or seeking out defiant students.
In fact, the cameras helped the school determine earlier this month that students weren’t behind an incident in which posters appeared to be ripped from a wall. The footage showed the posters were too heavy and fell to the floor, Schellenberg said.
Nelson said he respects the change in camera policy. He also said that as dean of students and a public school employee, his first obligation is to parents.
“They’re paying good money for us to make their kids good citizens,” he said. “Whatever that means to the parents, I’ll do it.”
Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653