A Tennessee school district where security cameras were installed in a middle school's locker rooms is accused of allowing images of children changing their clothes to be viewed over the Internet.
The parents of 17 children, ages 10 to 12, have filed lawsuits in federal and state courts against the Overton County School Board and Edutech Inc., the company that installed the cameras in the district's Livingston Middle School. The suits seek more than $4 million in damages.
According to the suit, images captured by the cameras of children dressing and undressing were stored on the hard drive of school computers and were accessed over the Internet from outside the school 98 times — often late at night or early in the morning — between July 2002 and January 2003.
Officials at the school, which is located about 80 miles northeast of Nashville, never changed the access codes for the security system files from the factory default settings, according to the complaint.
"I feel betrayed," said Michelle Meadows, the mother of one of the girls named as plaintiffs in the suit. "I trusted them with my child and they have betrayed my trust and I don't know if that's anything I can get back."
School officials provided no warning notice that the locker rooms were under surveillance, according to the suit.
According to the complaint, the issue was first raised on Jan. 9 when children from Allons Elementary School, who were using the locker rooms to change for basketball games at Livingston, noticed the cameras and asked about them. The complaint alleges that after the director of schools, William Needham, looked at what the cameras filmed that day, he told parents that the images were "a few bras and panties."
Needham refused to comment on what the lawsuit quotes him as saying or on any other aspect of the case. He referred all questions to the district's lawyer, Chuck Grady.
A spokeswoman at the Overton County School Board also referred calls by ABCNEWS.com to the district lawyer.
Grady said there would be no public comment on the suit until the district's response is filed. He said the response would not be filed for several weeks.
A spokeswoman for Edutech said the company would not comment on the suit. She declined to comment when asked if it was possible that the viewing of the images recorded on the school computer's hard drive could have been Edutech checking on the security system.
The Livingston Middle School is closed for the summer, and calls to the school were not answered. There is no home phone listing for the school's principal, Melinda Beaty.
The Overton County Sheriff's Department carried out an investigation last winter after the cameras were discovered, but decided not to file any criminal charges, Lt. Keith Smith said.
One camera had been placed in each of the two locker rooms, and they were pointed at doors from the locker rooms to the outside, because school officials were concerned about children sneaking out. However, the cameras had wide-angle lenses that also took in areas where children changed their clothes, he said.
"I think there was probably bad judgment as to where they were put and maybe some negligence after they were found to be put in a place where they could record inappropriate images," Smith said. "They got more than they should have."
Investigators determined that the images had been accessed over the Internet, he said.
"It's devastating," Meadows said. "You worry about who has seen this, where the images have gotten and what someone was able to do with them. My whole world revolves around my kids and you do everything you can to protect them, and then something like this happens."
No Criminal Intent Alleged
One school board member allegedly told parents and children that the camera was either a "dummy" camera, or was pointed in such a direction that it would not actually film children undressing, according to the complaint.
A former student at the school told ABC affiliate WKRN in Nashville that despite what officials said, he and other students who were aware of the cameras took precautions.
"I don't know if they were turned on or turned off or what," John Michael Stephens said. "We'd hang a piece of clothing over it so they couldn't see us."
Jack Lowery Jr., one of the lawyers handling the suit for the plaintiffs, said that there is no allegation that the school board or any other school administrators did anything with criminal intent.
"What we are stating is that this was grossly negligent," he said. "There is no conceivable reason for placing a camera in a locker room where children were undressing. Why would anybody allow anything like this to be done?"
Lowery said the discovery process of the suit was not complete, and it was not clear whether there was ever any kind of public announcement that cameras would be installed in the school.
"What is certain is that there were no signs indicating that the locker room was under surveillance," he said.
The camera in the locker room looked more like a motion detector than a typical video surveillance camera, Lowery said.
Protection or Invasion?
The case recalls a suit filed in 1993 against the Sheraton Boston Hotel by two workers who accused the hotel of illegally videotaping them in a men's changing room. The hotel eventually acknowledged installing the camera, claiming it was seeking evidence against a busboy who was suspected of dealing cocaine.
Security at schools has been a growing concern, and the advances in surveillance technology have provided some answers for administrators worried about violence in the wake of the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999 and other high-profile school shooting incidents.
Schools have turned to technology such as surveillance cameras and metal detectors to keep weapons out of schools and to deal with problems such as drug dealing, graffiti and smoking.
"People who use this technology have a responsibility to use it in a way where it can't be accessed over the Internet and where children's privacy will not be violated," Lowery said.
The question of how far schools can go in trying to rid campuses of crime or other problems has been raised repeatedly, not only with regard to technology, but also over locker searches, testing students for drugs and even pregnancy and infection with sexually transmitted diseases.
A Total Approach
Professionals in the security industry said school administrators are right to explore every option to increase security, but just installing new technology is not the answer.
"I think too often we say putting a camera somewhere will solve the problem," said Dave Saddler, the director of the Security Industry Association, a trade group of manufacturers, suppliers and distributors of security technology. "What's really needed is a total policy approach."
He said the problem the school is facing needs to be raised with teachers, parents and students, and that a solution should be reached only through collective discussions about the best way to deal with the issue.
Joe Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, an organization of 11,000 school-based law enforcement personnel, said his 18 years of experience working in schools taught him that all the technology in the world "is no replacement for a good rapport with the kids."
There are districts that have used surveillance cameras in bathrooms, though never directed in such a way that they would record images of children removing their clothes, Lavarello said, and he has never heard of another district that put cameras in locker rooms.
"That's a very sensitive area and you've got to be able to defend every action when it comes to any move that might infringe on children's privacy," he said.
A Human Answer
Kenneth Trump, the president of National School Safety and Security Services, a consulting firm, said that numerous districts his company has worked with across the country have talked about putting security cameras in bathrooms and locker rooms, but he counsels against it.
Instead, he said, he suggests positioning cameras outside in such a way that they will record who goes in and out, but without any chance of capturing images of children undressing. If the problem can't be dealt with that way, he said, a better approach is to have bathroom or locker room monitors.
"Should we have cameras in there? Absolutely not," he said.
Louis Palumbo, a security expert and director of the Elite Agency, a personal security firm, and others in the field ABCNEWS.com spoke to agreed that if school officials are concerned about a problem in a locker room — whether it is theft, graffiti or fights — the best way to deal with it is to have a teacher or other school personnel in the locker room.
He compared locker rooms to clothing store dressing rooms, where he said there would never be surveillance cameras, despite stores' legitimate concerns about shoplifting.
"There are other ways to account for what's going on in these dressing rooms," he said.