FBI Investigating Lower Merion School District’s Use of Laptop Webcams to Allegedly Spy on Students and Their Families!

Did you hear about the lawsuit filed against Lower Merion School District? In the case of Blake J. Robbins v. Lower Merion School District, the suit claims that laptops were issued to Harriton High School students with webcams that can be covertly activated by the schools’ administrators. The suit claims that the administrators were able to use this webcam feature to spy on students and even their families.

The issue came to light when the Robbin’s child was disciplined for “improper behavior in his home” and Harriton High School Vice Principal used a photo taken by the webcam as evidence. The suit is a class action, brought on behalf of all students issued with these specific webcam equipped laptops.

If these allegations are true, how creepy is this for the students and their families? Think about it . . . I’m sure that a number of these kids have their laptops in their bedrooms where they may be getting dressed, or how about if the laptop is located in an area where there are private discussions with the students families. It is one thing if a school district has the ability to monitor emails or mark inappropriate website visits but to use these computers as ‘bugs’ is horrifying.

Schools all over this country are worried about kids divulging too much personal information online, concerned about pedophiles, embarrassing uploads of photos, etc. that may affect college acceptances or future job opportunities. Kids are taught by parents and school administrators to threat their personal details as though they were precious. And now we have this revelation in nearby Lower Merion School District?

It is my understanding that Lower Merion School District has admitted that the laptops were shipped with software for covertly activating their webcams, but is denying wrongdoing. Late today, the Associated Press is reporting that the FBI is now involved in the case. The FBI is investigating the Lower Merion School District over allegations that a high school in the school district spied on students through their laptop webcams. The official, speaking to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, says the FBI will explore whether Lower Merion School District officials broke any federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws.

Lower Merion officials say they remotely activated webcams 42 times to find missing student laptops in the past 14 months, but never did so to spy on students, as the Blake J. Robbins v. Lower Merion School District lawsuit claims.

What is Tredyffrin Easttown School District’s policy on computer usage outside of school hours?  Does the school district have a similar laptop program to Lower Merion?  I don’t think our school district assigns laptops to individual students, correct?  Are any of the district’s laptops permitted to leave the schools?

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9 Responses

  1. Lower Merion gave laptops to all their high school students (originally Harriton but ultimately both schools) There are two sides to this story to be sure, as the parents clearly made no effort to keep this minor child’s name out of the news — and posting on Lower Merion sites are indignant that this could be true, but more annoyed by the family that filed the suit. After all — these law suits against school districts are lawsuits whose “settlement” or “award” will come straight from tax dollars. To my knowledge, TESD doesn’t have laptops to give away — and based on the reporting of the facts in LMSD, there is no knowledge on the part of the admins that this was happening. Technology like that is easy (see the article in today’s Inquirer http://www.philly.com/philly/business/technology/20100219_Remotely_accessing_a_laptop_is_fairly_easy.html )
    We need to consider that school governance has changed dramatically since Columbine. It’s rarely been driven by facts — mostly fear. Safety committees, cameras in hallways, doors locked during the day — Downingtown recently removed doors from the bathroom stalls in the boys bathrooms at one of their schools (http://www.dailylocal.com/articles/2010/02/10/news/srv0000007560853.txt )

    There are hypotheticals that could explain this — the student might have claimed that his laptop was stolen, and pictures taken when the feature was activated might have shown the plaintiff using drug paraphernalia. (which is what is claimed on facebook by his legions of fans). OR there could be a pedophile that works in the district who has hacked into the system. It is beyond my imagination that anyone could be doing this that is a legitimate contributor to the school system, but it is certainly an eye-opener as to the dangers of having a camera on your laptop. Note — these computers remained the property of the school district — and were part of a program that required the recipient and their family to sign rules regarding use. That would not make any spying legal, but it should be an alert to parents — laptops in your kids rooms means == spying or not — there can be all kinds of things that are going over the internet. We can trust our kids — but do you remember what you did as a kid when you found a playboy or some “dirty pictures?” Did you turn them in…or pass them around. The internet allows all this to happen in private. If Big Brother caught someone doing something, it will be ironic that Big Brother will probably take the brunt of the fall — and the plaintiff who may have been ‘caught in the act” will walk away with a check. Great parenting.
    Oh yes — this is the same school district that the TE teachers complain are so much better paid. I now remind us that sometimes pay is market driven- who wants to work someplace where they now have an FBI investigation, they are in the middle of a law suit for civil rights violations (have spent $130K in pretrial motions because of a redistricting plan)….and almost every single parent posting is SURE the teachers are spying on their kids.

  2. Wow, it’s impressive that you made this into a TE teacher issue. Issues like this are always decided by the admin. and approved by the school board. Teachers take no part in that decision making.

    So, your philosophy is “yes the admin/board of Lower Merion stepped in it big time but, that is a reason we should not give a comparable wage to our teachers.”.

  3. No — under marketing 101 — you pay what you need to to hire people. We don’t “give” wages — we negotiate them (most employers set them). It’s a tough place to work….just wanted to remind people that every job description for a teacher is not the same. Wow — you jumped on that one. Consider the alternative — LM is a tough place to work and the people do not seem to have a clue what their mission is — so perhaps they throw money at everything (like giving the laptops and now finding their policy was in violation of federal law regarding wiretapping).

  4. I do agree with you that Lower Merion created a plan without a mission but, that is the fault of the admin. and the school board. They created this program without thinking what they are going to do with this technology from a loss-prevention point of view.

    As far as I know teaching is teaching and yes some school districts are more demanding of their teachers than others. Are you suggesting that T/E is not demanding of their teachers? (And before you jump on my comment, I do not mean in an abusive way I mean in that there are reasonable expectation levels for our teachers.) If not, then please share with the rest of us? I do not want my tax dollars going to an education system where I do not get a good return.

    Also, your marketing 101 strategy only goes halfway. Yes, you do pay what you need to in order to attract the talent but, you also pay what you need to in order to retain the talent you have. (Why do banks/companies give out big league bonuses to CEOS’s, etc.? In order to retain the best. If that is not basic capitalism then I don’t know what is.)

  5. I actually think we agree with each other. The market sets the price — the problem with teachers is that they are not willing to let the market affect their value. Administrators do — and that’s why they are able to move between districts and make more money. But teacher contracts prevent hiring someone beyond a certain step (that’s to protect themselves) and they reject any discussion of merit. Banks give bonuses to retain their people — but a school district cannot decide who to retain. So they have to pay everyone of the same longevity the same amount of salary. I certainly think there are demands on teachers in every job — but I think you can read the two district contracts and see which district respects their employees more and which district is “nicer” — no tnecessarily easier — to work for. The folks in LMSD are already calling for the resignation/firing of the Superintendent — a man with a long, long career in education who has only been there for less than 2 years….more lawyers per square mile I think. So I was being too glib when I pointed out that the FBI and litigation were a way of life in the district that folks want to work for — because they pay more — because I have talked with LMSD board members and they claim that HAVE to pay more to get folks to work there. I certainly understand that with their admins. One of our principals used to be an ass’t superintendent in LMSD — left there to be a principal here for less money. Sorry for the casual reference. to salary. If only there was a way to differentiate between great teachers and just average ones without having to hear the tired phrase of “protecting from discrimination” that we hear in defense of seniority. Union leaders protect leadership…their power comes from the more senior teachers. You cannot pay a great teacher too much, and you cannot pay a lousy teacher little enough to run them off. It’s a balance. Thanks.

  6. Basic capitalism doe not involve collective bargaining.

  7. Let this be a warning to T/E taxpayers: LM taxpayers have let their school district run out of control.

    We already knew that LMSD employees are grossly overpaid, since the thousands of applicants for open positions there face even longer odds than applicants for jobs in TESD. But a take-home laptop for every high school student?! That’s stupid even without district employees using them for surreptitious surveillance.

    I hope that ultimately the LM taxpayers, and not just the district’s insurance, will have to bear some of the costs of this scandal. Maybe then they’ll learn the importance of civic responsibility.

    • My understanding is that the computers were bought for the District’s students by the state. Oh okay, PA spends $2,000,000 (?) to supply computers to 2300 students in one of the wealthiest school districts in the state, many/most of whom already have a computer.

  8. I could not agree more — and I hope people see what happens when there is only political infighting to get on a school board. Everyone has an agenda — but it’s also important to remember that we parents put a lot of pressure on schools post-Columbine. Whatever happens here, I doubt that anyone intended to violate anyone’s rights– but it does remind us to pay attention — not just when there are budget cuts.

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