Beyond Security: Using School Video Surveillance to Catch a Kiss

Privacy concerns in question after girl's parents given surveillance footage of kiss


Video cameras at Gig Harbor High School here 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, shared the footage with the parents of one of the girls. They have since transferred her to another school, 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 is 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.

(Distributed by Scripps-McClatchy Western Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)