The students and administrators at Charles H. Flowers High School assumed the principal’s office was a private space.
In the office of the Springdale, Md., school, students and their families in crisis would speak with administrators about their challenges. Principals held confidential meetings about staff evaluations and personnel matters. And multiple people — including the principal, two of his children and the girls’ pom and dance team — undressed there in between school and extracurricular activities.
But that “expectation of privacy was determined to be an illusion” after administrators at Flowers discovered a hidden surveillance camera had been running in the office for almost two years, a lawsuit brought by two administrators and a school secretary asserts.
The lawsuit filed last month in federal court in Maryland seeks damages against Prince George’s County Public Schools and its security division, claiming the hidden video camera placed in the office without a warrant has violated their constitutional right “to be free from government intrusion and invasion” into their “private and personal space.”
The civil court action, first reported by WTTG-TV (Fox 5), offers more details into how the camera was discovered since school and police officials announced they were investigating the matter in April but does not indicate why or by whom the camera had been placed in the principal’s office.
The complaint alleges the camera — hidden in what looked to be a smoke detector — was installed in July 2016 by the school system’s security services department, but does not name an individual or make detailed assertions about who may have authorized the action.
School system spokesman John White said the district had no comment on the lawsuit. In a September court filing, the school system denied many allegations and said it had no information to support other claims.
Flowers Principal Gorman Brown, then-Resident Principal Mar-c Holland and school secretary Donna Bussey are seeking monetary damages in the case, saying the discovery of the camera has left them paranoid and emotionally distraught.
An assistant principal discovered the camera April 13 when he was looking for video from the school parking lot after a student had been involved in a hit-and-run that morning, according to the lawsuit. He searched for a camera angle labeled “Main Lobby” thinking it would offer a view of the parking lot but instead saw “a live feed of the Principal’s office, where Holland was seated at her desk working,” the lawsuit states. The assistant principal immediately called Holland, who found the camera in the back corner of the office in something resembling a smoke detector, according to the claim.
Administrators soon learned the camera could be accessed remotely by anyone who had the IP address and found video files going back many months, the lawsuit said.
“More troubling was the fact that the video had been stored going back as far as November 28, 2016 because all other school cameras only stored footage for 30 days before the footage is recorded over by new footage,” it said.
A police investigation into the camera’s placement remains ongoing, police said.
Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski stressed shortly after the discovery that the camera was part of an effort to “gather information,” and was not placed in an area that “lends itself to prurient behavior,” such as a locker room or bathroom where students might be affected. The lawsuit takes a different position.
The principal’s office suite was designed with a shower and bathroom that Brown “often used for school-related activities during the school day and evening,” believing it was “a safe space devoid of any hidden surveillance cameras,” the lawsuit said.
During the nearly two years the camera was in place, multiple people changed their clothes in the room, according to the suit. The pom and dance team, with 26 members in the 2017-18 school year, used the office “to prepare and dress for activities.” So did Holland, Bussey and Brown and Brown’s children, ages 9 and 12, who visited him after school.
The lawsuit said pom and dance team members used the office because the locker room is occupied by visiting football teams, and Bussey — the girls’ team co-sponsor — wanted to keep them in sight, under her supervision. Brown’s children used the office to change clothes ahead of basketball, dance, cheerleading and other extracurricular activities. The school secretary and principal in training were said to spend long days at work and sometimes needed to change for events or activities.
“Upon learning of the hidden surveillance camera placed in the Principal’s Office, Bussey has felt violated, victimized, and humiliated after realizing that persons have been filming her actions for over two years,” the lawsuit asserts, “but particularly saddened and hurt that the girls on the Pom Team were put in a position to be filmed and videotaped without anyone’s knowledge.”
Brown and Bussey remain in their positions at Flowers High, and Holland is principal at Oxon Hill High School.