The former superintendent of the 1,000-student Modoc Joint Unified School District in northern California knows his story seems bizarre. He was convicted in 1999 of placing a hidden camera inside a principal’s office.
Now, after more than a year confined to rural Modoc County awaiting the outcome of his appeal, Mr. Drennan is a free man.
A state appeals court overturned his conviction. The Nov. 27 ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento said the superintendent never broke the law, and shouldn’t ever have stood trial.
The ruling finally provided Mr. Drennan and his family some relief. But it won’t give him his old life back, he says.
Mr. Drennan, who is 46, says his two teenage children were ridiculed at school. One graduated early; the other is finishing studies at home.
He was fired from his job, after working as a teacher, assistant principal, and district administrator in the Modoc County schools.
Worse than his firing, he was labeled by some in town as a man who, for some reason, would spy on a principal’s office by hidden camera.
Mr. Drennan was paid an annual salary of $78,000 and was the superintendent for more than four years.
He said in a recent interview that he had asked the district’s maintenance supervisor in December 1998 to install a camera that took pictures every three seconds of the principal’s desk, a file cabinet, and other places in the principal’s office where someone might look for private documents. No sound was recorded.
Mr. Drennan said he believed that someone was sneaking into office files when no one else was around, since confidential information about some district employees had somehow circulated publicly. When no intruder was discovered, the camera was disconnected in March 1999.
A local prosecutor, who now says he should have charged Mr. Drennan with nothing more than a misdemeanor, said in a previous interview with Education Week that the superintendent was looking for “dirt” on the principal. He filed charges in May 1999 after remains of the camera—disguised as a smoke detector— were found in the principal’s office.
Mr. Drennan was suspended from his job and arrested. In September of that year, he was convicted by a jury of felony eavesdropping, sentenced to 10 days in jail, and fined more than $7,000.
The superintendent appealed the decision; in the meantime, he could leave the county only with permission. His jail sentence was put on hold pending the appeal, but he hasn’t worked for a year.
Installing the camera, Mr. Drennan said, was a mistake, but not a violation of the law. No motive besides solving a possible crime prompted the installation of the camera, he said, which was done with the knowledge of school board members and the district’s lawyer.
He asserted that political motives fueled the charges, but would not elaborate. “You develop people that would rather see you gone than there. This became an issue my enemies could pounce on,” he maintained.
Mr. Drennan’s next move is uncertain, but he wants badly to be a school administrator again, lesson learned, his old life left behind.
“When you’re labeled as a felon, it’s tough to find work in a school,” he said, expressing relief that his record will no longer brand him a criminal. “This was a blip and not a fatal error, I hope. I’m a straight shooter. I don’t play politics.”
Cindy Culp, who until last month was a school board member in Modoc County, said she wrote a letter of recommendation for Mr. Drennan.
“He was a good superintendent,” she said, declining further comment because a civil case is pending between the district and the former principal in whose office the camera was installed. She said the principal’s contract was not renewed.
Mr. Drennan, for his part, just hopes the latest ruling will enable him to restart his career as an educator.
“This is what I really enjoy doing and love,” he said. “Now, we just go out and start applying for jobs.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 10, 2001 edition of Education Week as Cleared of Eavesdropping Conviction, Ex-Superintendent Hopes for New Job