SPRINGDALE, Md. – Three employees of Prince George’s County Public Schools are suing the school district claiming that the school system broke state and federal law by installing a hidden surveillance camera at Charles H. Flowers High School to spy on them.
They are also alleging the camera may have recorded students as they changed clothes.
Six months ago, Prince George’s County police held a press conference to announce the camera’s discovery, with few additional details. The FBI got involved soon after. Since then, there has been no update on the investigation from the school system or the police department.
The lawsuit, filed by Flowers principal Gorman Brown, resident principal Mar-C Holland and secretary Donna Bussey, says the camera was found in the principal’s office and was disguised as a smoke detector.
According to the lawsuit, it had been in the office more than two years since the summer of 2016 and was connected to the school security network. What is still unknown is who authorized this and why.
The lawsuit says not only did the staff occasionally change clothes in the office, but so did students, including girls on the Flowers’ Pom and Dance team.
The lawsuit says Bussey, a co-sponsor of the team, was “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.” She says the students would use the office to change because opposing sports teams were using the school’s locker rooms.
The camera was discovered on April 13, according to the lawsuit. It says an assistant principal was looking for security footage after a hit-and-run in the parking lot. He clicked on a school system camera labeled “main lobby” and realized it was a live feed of the principal’s office. He alerted resident principal Holland who was in the office at the time. The lawsuit says that Holland pulled up the camera on her computer and was able to see herself at her desk. She found the hidden camera in a smoke alarm in the corner.
At the press conference on April 16, Prince George’s County Police Chief Hank Stawinski said the case was under investigation by the department’s Public Corruption Squad.
“We do not believe [the camera] was intended for criminal purposes, but at this point in the investigation, we are unclear as to who authorized the placement of that device,” Stawinski said at the time.
Dr. Kevin Maxwell, the school district’s CEO at the time, also spoke saying he didn’t know who put the camera there. Maxwell said he alerted police immediately after it came to his attention.
“We thought together that it was best for us that we came forward in a transparent way,” said Maxwell.
On Tuesday, a Prince George’s County police spokeswoman said the investigation was still underway and there was no update she could provide.
Maryland employment attorney Jim Rubin is not involved in the case, but spoke to FOX 5 about the legality of an employer secretly recording employees.
“My first thought was kind of surprise that a public employer was surveilling its employees,” Rubin said.
He says a major factor in this case is the expectation of privacy. An employer can record employees without issue in areas where they have no expectation of privacy, like in a break room or open office area. But Rubin says a private office is different.
“Without some real proof that there is some wrongdoing going on, then in a closed-off office, you have the expectation of privacy,” Rubin said.
The attorney for the three employees suing says it is unclear if the camera was recording audio. It is illegal to record conversations of other people without their knowledge.
Rubin says there should be a higher standard for government employers versus private businesses.
“They are using our public money, so you want to know what are they up to,” he said.
The three employees are alleging their state and constitutional rights were violated and asking for an unspecified amount in damages. In a court filing, the school district is denying those allegations.