As she got undressed in a storage room at Bloomingdale High School one day last year, Emilee Runnels found herself looking for a hidden camera.
The room beside teacher Mark Ackett’s classroom served as a changing area where his students tried on the projects they made in his fashion design and life skills courses.
Runnels knew someone could easily hide a camera in the room to record students like her. She figured another student might try it — but not a trusted teacher.
"I wasn’t skeptical of him at all," said Runnels, now 18. "I thought he was such a genuine guy and one of my favorite teachers."
She was shocked this week when news broke that her former teacher, Ackett, was arrested on a charge of committing video voyeurism on school property as a school employee. A 17-year-old Bloomingdale High student said Tuesday that she found two cell phones, one of them recording, while undressing in the changing room.
Ackett, a 49-year-old married father of two teenage sons, told investigators the phones were his, placed there to record students as they undressed, according to an arrest report. He resigned after 27 years on the job.
The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office hasn’t revealed what it knows about how long Ackett has been recording students or what he did with the videos. A sheriff’s spokesman told the Times on Friday the agency had no new information to share.
Runnels said a detective told her mother the recordings started in 2017. Now the 2018 graduate is among the students who worry they, too, might be victims.
Even if they weren’t recorded, they feel betrayed.
"I think that’s why I and a lot of the girls are just so hurt, because we thought he was a teacher we could trust," said Chase Burgen, who took Ackett’s fashion design class last fall and changed in the room many times. "We never got a creepy vibe from him."
In retrospect, though, Runnels and Burgen now believe Ackett manipulated and targeted them.
Runnels said one segment of the senior survival class involved making men’s boxer shorts. She said each student had to try on shorts of different sizes so they knew which size to make. But Runnels said Ackett made other clothes — dresses, shorts and tops — for her and a female friend throughout the yearlong class. Runnels said Ackett also asked them to try on clothes he was making.
She recalled once telling him she didn’t want to try on a dress he’d made for her. "But I worked so hard on it for you," she recalls him saying. She felt bad, so she tried it on.
Runnels said she sometimes got completely undressed in the room to try on clothes. She said her friend took off her bra multiple times to try on tops.
Runnels and Burgen said Ackett seemed to go out of his way to make them comfortable. He made sure to have female students measure each other. Runnels said Ackett told them: "I’m not trying to be the creepy teacher who touches girls."
"We had to talk about body shape and measurements and he always seemed to watch his words and be careful," Burgen said.
She said Ackett chose her as his "guinea pig" to try on a romper he made as part of a class project, so she went into the room several times just for that.
A district employee since 1991, Ackett also worked as an assistant principal at Bloomingdale, then went to the district office for a stint as supervisor of attendance. Ackett returned to the high school as a teacher last year. He also coached the girls track team.
Runnels said Ackett told students he thought fashion was his calling. She said he joked about taking sewing classes during the summer "with old ladies" to learn enough to be able to teach.
Ackett was also Burgen’s on-the-job training teacher, keeping track of her progress in her two part-time jobs.
"It was cool to have a teacher who was really there for me," said Burgen, now 17 and in college.
When she woke up Wednesday to text messages from friends asking if she heard the news, Burgen’s mind raced: Was that why he seemed to care about me, because he was videotaping me? Was that why he picked me for his romper project?
Runnels recalls Ackett telling her she was like a daughter to him. Could he say that and still record her undressing?
She says she is almost sure the answer is yes.
"He completely put on a fake face toward so many students," Runnels said. "He literally had us all fooled."
The former students also worry that any videos Ackett made of them were shared with others or, worse, posted online.
If convicted on the single charge, Ackett faces up to 15 years in prison. Runnels and Burgen said he deserves prison time.
"I don’t know how to go forward and trust future teachers after this," Burgen said.
At the end of the year, Ackett gave students a typed farewell letter. At the bottom of Runnels’ letter, in a handwritten note, Ackett called Runnels "one of the most toughest, most disciplined young people I’ve ever known."
The letter meant a lot to Runnels at the time. She tucked it into her yearbook as a keepsake.
"Now every time I read it, it makes me sick to my stomach."
Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.