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Spying on worker a no-no
The school district and the employee union agree: A secret videocamera is just wrong.
By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK, Times Staff Writer
Published October 19, 2007
NEW PORT RICHEY - Someone in authority got the notion one day in May that one of the Mitchell High cafeteria workers was stealing from the school.
So without permission from the district administration, or the concurrence of the employee union, a tiny videocamera went into a cafeteria ceiling tile near the worker's station. The surveillance effort didn't reveal any wrongdoing, except on the part of the unnamed person who authorized the taping in the first place.
"Food service may have gotten ahead of law enforcement," said employee relations supervisor Kevin Shibley, calling the decision an inappropriate aberration. "It's the general practice of the district that we don't instigate surveillance on our own."
Here's what we know:
The food service department became aware of "shortages" in the school cafeteria early last year. Officials conferred with the employee relations department and the district's lead resource officer, and plotted out what they thought was a path to determine whether anyone was stealing money.
The lead officer, a lieutenant, transferred, and his replacement didn't follow up on the case. But a person in food service, whom the district is not naming, put in a camera system.
No recordings were ever made. No allegations of stealing ever were proved. The employee who was suspected still works for the district today.
When the United School Employees of Pasco learned about the video system in August - nearly three months after its installation - it filed a class-action grievance.
Mostly, union leaders wanted to make sure nothing like this happens again.
"A grievance is a problem-solving tool," union president Lynne Webb said. "After numerous conversations with the district, we found out there was actually a misunderstanding between the top district administration and the local administration. Each of them thought law enforcement had authorized the secret surveillance."
The surveillance system did, in fact, surprise the superintendent's staff.
"Once we found out that the cameras had been installed and the grievance had been filed, we immediately ordered them removed," Shibley said.
The district also acknowledged the mistake.
"While the district has a responsibility to respond to any reports or information which indicates possible unlawful activity in the workplace by an employees, the district agrees that the use of covert videotaping in the workplace as an investigatory tool ... will only occur under the direction and control of the appropriate law enforcement agency to ensure the appropriate laws and privacy considerations are adhered to," employee relations director Terry Rhum wrote in an Oct. 9 letter to the union's business representative.
With the district taking that attitude, Webb said, the union dropped its complaint.
"I think they thought law enforcement was involved," she said. "In all my years, this is the first time I've known this to happen. So I truly do believe this is an aberration and it's not going to happen again."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.