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Ex-Hartselle High coach hid surveillance camera in her office, alleges discrimination

By Michael Wetzel

For the Enquirer

The fired Hartselle High School softball coach, while still employed at Hartselle Junior High, installed a hidden camera in her junior high office and remotely watched her principal open her desk and filing cabinet before he found and removed the camera.

Christy Ferguson was terminated as a Hartselle High coach but kept her job as a junior high physical education teacher until resigning two weeks ago and taking a job as Danville High’s softball coach and ninth-grade biology teacher.

She had been employed by Hartselle City Schools for 23 years.

In an administrative complaint, Ferguson claims that while she was told she was fired from her coaching duties because she revealed to team members that a softball player had potentially been exposed to COVID-19, the real reason was her long-time advocacy for the girls sports programs at Hartselle City Schools.

Woody Sanderson, a lawyer for Hartselle City Schools, said Ferguson’s installation of the surveillance camera violated school policy, and Hartselle Junior High Principal Rocky Smith was within his rights to search the office as part of an inquiry.

Sanderson

Smith declined comment, referring questions to Sanderson.

Ferguson’s lawyer, Jackie Graham, said the camera was installed for her client’s protection.

“We were sure the guy was going to plant something in her office,” Graham said last week. “I mean, we were sure of that. He came in and searched her office. Then he took her garbage to the Central Office, and they searched her garbage.

“We were like, we have to do something here because the next thing they’re going to do is (plant something incriminating). That was the concern.”

Sanderson said school policy spells out when surveillance cameras can be used.

“Without the consent or knowledge of the principal, it was a violation of school policy,” Sanderson said. “There is a policy about installation of surveillance. He had not been made aware of her installation of a surveillance camera. This occurred after school was out, and all teachers had been required to turn in their keys to their offices, which she did not do. She had been asked to do so.”

Sanderson quoted the policy as saying, “The superintendent should be made aware of any extraordinary or special measures that may be proposed in anticipation of or in response to any unusual security threat or risk – e.g. unusual surveillance or assignment of additional security personnel, etc.”

Sanderson said the camera was returned to Ferguson when she resigned and collected her other belongings.

“He has the right to go in the offices,” Sanderson said. “He was properly engaged in an inquiry that he had the authority to undertake.”

Sanderson declined to describe the nature of the inquiry. “I can’t speak to the nature of that investigation or what will transpire from this point forward with respect to that,” he said.

The Decatur Daily reviewed a series of four short videos dated June 7-9, in which the surveillance camera in the clock showed Smith and a female employee entering Ferguson’s office and going through desk drawers and files. In one video, a third person – identified by Graham as a locksmith – appears to be opening locked drawers in Ferguson’s office. The final video shows Smith looking at the camera before it was pointed toward a wall and then went blank.

Police report

June 9 Ferguson filed an incident report with the Hartselle Police Department, reporting the removal of the hidden camera and connected Wi-Fi device.

According to the narrative by Lt. Alan McDearmond, he advised her it did not appear to be a criminal matter. He then contacted Ferguson’s lawyer, who “said she understood there was no crime committed at this point, but she wanted the incident documented and relayed to the superintendent.”

Hartselle City Schools said removal of the camera was appropriate.

“She alleged that a camera she had surreptitiously put in her office had been removed by the principal,” Sanderson said. “This occurred after school was out. This was an office of the school system. There had been a discovery that there had been a surveillance camera that she installed without permission or consent of anybody in her office. The principal removed it and stored it in his office.”

In a May 26 complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission, Ferguson alleges she was terminated April 13 as Hartselle High softball coach in “retaliation for my years of standing up for the girls’ sports programs in the Hartselle City Schools. I have repeatedly voiced my displeasure over the inequity of the girls’ facilities, fundraising and treatment toward coaches.”

Ferguson said in the EEOC complaint that the reason given for being relieved of her coaching duties by Superintendent Dee Dee Jones was that she violated federal privacy laws “by disclosing to my team that a fellow softball player was quarantining for having contact with a family member who possibly had COVID-19.” She alleges male coaches informed parents and players about COVID-19 cases without penalty.

“I have been singled out (even though) the disclosure was not improper, and the parents of the child did not complain,” she wrote, and she said Jones’ allegations of privacy law violations “are a ruse to get me out of their hair for what they deem to be a legitimate reason.”

In her EEOC complaint, Ferguson said the school system frequently violated the 1972 Title IX Act, which provides guidelines for, among other things, equal access to athletic programs for females.

She said the Hartselle girls’ softball program was given inferior opportunities and facilities and fewer funds than the boys’ athletic programs.

“Baseball is able to pay an assistant coach $13,000 a year to maintain the baseball practice field, whereas I, as the former softball coach, had to rely on the janitor to mow my field or pay out of my own pocket to have the field maintained.”

She said the system’s baseball and softball programs participated in a joint annual fundraising program that began in 2003 with the proceeds, about $50,000, being split 50/50. She said when she was hired to coach softball in 2012, the split was 70 percent for baseball and 30 percent for softball.

“Then in fall 2018, the softball team was dropped from the fundraiser, and it was suggested by (Jones) that softball do their own fundraising,” Ferguson said in the EEOC complaint. She said baseball had its own field, and softball had to share its field with the city youth softball league.

She said her team’s practice field would flood when it rained, and the school system did not make improvements to alleviate the problem.

She also wrote in the complaint that Jones did nothing to curtail what Ferguson said was harassment from Smith. She said Smith accused her of not having a “functioning” physical education program for girls, insubordination, losing control of her class and having inadequate lesson plans.

Two male football coaches, she said, were free to “conduct their class in any manner they chose.”

Ferguson also alleged in the complaint that Smith and Jones went through trash from her office in late April. She said she demanded Smith return a personal paper that had been discarded, and after going to the Central Office, he returned it. “It is evident he and Dr. Dee Dee Jones had gone through my garbage looking for evidence against me,” she wrote.

In the administrative complaint, Ferguson asks that the EEOC authorize her to file a discrimination and harassment complaint in court.

“She has suffered emotional distress and has had her civil rights violated,” said Graham. “We’re not backing off of this.”

Jones did not respond to requests for comment.

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