Manipulated Classroom Video Leads to Safety Threats

NSEA Supports Bill to Ban Surreptitious Recordings in Schools

The spring day in 2018 was a day like most others in Diane Wigert’s high school English class. In the last period, she was helping students practice for a writing exam with an exercise in developing counter arguments.

“I try to get them to think for themselves, to do research, to find evidence and to share opinions,” Wigert said.

The essay prompt revolved around the idea of public safety vs. personal freedom – a topic Wigert had broached and a method she had used in all her earlier periods that day and for years before.

This day, a few students quickly and purposely turned the conversation political and waited with their cell phone camera at the ready.

“They ended up videoing my classroom without my knowledge and without my permission, and then took that information and edited it to misrepresent me,” Wigert said.

The real trouble began when these students shared their manipulated version of the video. It quickly went viral, spreading throughout the community and even across state lines. Wigert’s life and the lives of her family members soon became a nightmare.

“My personal safety, the safety of my family members, and even the safety of some of my colleagues was imperiled,” Wigert said in her testimony to the Nebraska Legislature’s Education Committee in February. “There was a clear and present danger, made obvious by the death threats we received through phone calls and the internet. My dogs barked throughout the night. Beer cans and trash were often found strewn in my front yard by people who had visited my yard during the middle of the night to intimidate me. I didn’t see it coming. I don’t think anybody did.”

The threats and intimidation continued for weeks. Wigert wondered how she was going to make it through each day, let alone through the few months until her previously planned retirement at the end of the school year.

“There was a lot of pain inflicted not just on me, but on my family, on my colleagues, on the school district, on their fellow students. Everybody was hurting,” she said.

To Wigert’s knowledge, the students who made the video were never punished. She continued to teach them every day while looking out for herself, her colleagues and other students in her classes.

“What they didn’t know is there were a lot of days I just wanted to throw up,” Wigert said. “It took everything I had, but at the same time, I focused on the people who believed in me and the students who were depending on me, because that was the only way. I hadn’t done anything wrong, but I was made to be a scapegoat or a target for whatever reason.”

Bill Would Ban Secretive Recordings

In January, Lincoln Sen. Adam Morfeld introduced LB518, a bill that would add surreptitious electronic surveillance – or unauthorized, secretive recording – to a lengthy list of prohibited behaviors under the Student Discipline Act. According to the bill, this means “intruding upon the privacy of other persons by secretly listening to, monitoring, or recording,” or attempting any of those, “by means of any mechanical, electronic, or other listening device any conversation engaged in by the other persons, unless authorized to do so by all participants engaging in the conversation.”

It would apply to both in-person and remote school activities.

It would not apply to surveillance authorized by a court order, when one party believes a criminal act is being committed, to traditional schoolwide surveillance systems or when a teacher authorizes recording of a class or lab session.

The Student Discipline Act already prohibits conduct like violence, drug possession, sexual assault, making threats and bullying on school property or during school-sponsored activities.

The bill does not carry criminal consequences at the school level, but it does provide for long-term suspension, expulsion or mandatory reassignment of a student who violates the act.

Privacy, Safety Issue

Nebraska is a one-party recording state, meaning someone who records another can legally do so without the other’s permission. As proposed, LB518 would only apply in the school setting and doesn’t necessarily include institutions of higher education.

Morfeld teaches at Doane University in Crete. He told the Education Committee he’s concerned about recordings like this at the university level, too.

“That can be used to really embarrass people. It’s not just a privacy concern for the teacher, it’s also a privacy concern for the fellow students,” Morfeld said. “It’s not going to be an issue that goes away because online learning is only here to stay and grow in a different way.”

Wigert cited cases in several other states where surreptitious recordings have harmed or defamed teachers. In a February case at a parochial school in Omaha, a student recorded a teacher who spoke a racial slur while reading from a biography of a Black civil rights leader. The clip was taken out of context and shared on Twitter.

“I think we are so used to this kind of thing now, it’s commonplace. Perhaps senators will think, ‘How could we possibly legislate that?’” Wigert said. “It has got to start somewhere, and classrooms are different. Classrooms are a teacher’s domain. It’s their room. When you have students videotaping and then sending out virally and misrepresenting – in my case, misrepresenting me – all of a sudden, I’m a victim in my own classroom, and my classroom doesn’t feel safe anymore. Not to me, and there are also other students in the classroom who are horrified by how this went down.”

The legislature’s Education Committee is looking to determine how the bill would be carried out and how it would apply in certain circumstances, like remote learning.

Because Nebraska is a one-party recording state, Wigert said it was nearly impossible to find a written policy she could use in this situation. She encouraged school districts to write their own policies against surreptitious recording, even if LB518 doesn’t pass this session.

NSEA Has Your Back

Throughout the ordeal, Wigert relied on NSEA for guidance. Her organizational specialist at the time was Michelle Raphael, who is now NSEA’s Field and Special Projects Manager.

“Michelle would just check on me to make sure I was OK physically and mentally. She always said to me, ‘I’ve got your back,’” Wigert said.

The two met with one another and checked in regularly. Raphael referred Wigert’s case to NSEA’s Department of Advocacy, which provided more guidance and advice for Wigert.

NSEA supports LB518 as one of nearly 80 bills on which it has testified or taken a stance this legislative session. Wigert noted that NSEA reviewed more than 600 bills this session.

“While we’re in the classroom busily teaching, they’re watching out for us. When it comes to legislating education, we can trust NSEA to keep us informed. It is in our best interest to pay attention to their notifications,” Wigert said.

“It doesn’t have to take a personal incident like mine to have them have my back. Now I have a whole different appreciation for that.”

Speaking Out for Change

Cards, flowers, kind words and support came pouring in from other teachers and students to let Wigert know she wasn’t alone. She found the courage to testify before the legislature and said she wanted to do it for those who stuck by her during the incident.

“I needed to step up and stand tall for them,” she said.

She also wanted to speak for those who may not realize they could be the next victim of a surreptitious recording.

“It’s going to happen to somebody again. This is a matter of time. Will it be as horrible of a situation as I went through? I hope not, but what’s to keep it from being?” Wigert said.

One of her goals is to get the message across that recordings like this can be detrimental not only to individuals but to schools and whole communities.

“This type of empowerment is dangerous. No one should be encouraged to spread misinformation about others especially when it can lead to serious, life-threatening consequences,” Wigert said. “We have to quit acting like things like this are OK.”

She hopes senators will take notice and pass LB518 to protect Nebraska teachers who could find themselves in a similar situation.

“I have always believed that things happen for a reason, and my story is no exception. Testifying in favor of LB518 is an important step forward in that story,” Wigert said. “I hope my testimony will assist in the passing of LB518, which will provide protection currently unavailable for teachers, students and school districts.”