Laptop talk is curbed at L. Merion meeting

Posted: February 24, 2010

Superintendent Christopher McGinley, whose Lower Merion School District was accused in a federal lawsuit last week of spying on students in their homes, faced about 75 district residents last night and said little about the controversy.

McGinley had no choice; he is barred by a court order, filed Monday, from talking about the allegations, unless he first clears his statements with attorneys for 15-year-old Blake Robbins and his family.

So he had nothing of substance to say about the lawsuit over district-issued laptop computers at the meeting at Narberth Borough Hall.

"It is our practice and desire to be as open as possible. But the fact is that we are simply unable to discuss laptop security," McGinley said. "The courts have spoken on this issue for now. As soon as we are able to share information, we will."

Such communication limits are commonplace in class-action litigation, but rare in the context of a school district at the center of what has become a nationwide controversy.

The Narberth meeting had been organized well in advance of the lawsuit, and many residents were there mainly to hear about other issues - redistricting, the budget, and the overall direction of the district.

A reference to the laptop controversy came up during the budget discussion, when Marguerite Gordon of Narberth noted that lawsuits against the district are costly. "Every time we have another lawsuit, it absolutely increases the taxes," she said.

Before the meeting, many said they had opinions on the laptop matter.

John McGinty, the father of two elementary school students, said that if it turns out that the district activated its webcam theft-detection system only to locate missing or stolen laptops, not to spy on students, "I don't have a problem with that."

Robyn Needelman, the mother of an elementary school student, said that "I'm sure that they had a good reason to do what they did," and worried that the litigation would "take money away from our kids' education."

Mike Salmonson, the father of an elementary school student, said that the activation of the laptops was "part of what I would call institutional arrogance - a lack of full disclosure and honesty" on the part of district administrators.

In November, a Harriton assistant principal called in Robbins, a sophomore, showed him an image captured from his school-owned laptop, and said the picture appeared to show him with drugs, according to Mark S. Haltzman, his attorney.

Haltzman and Robbins both have said the teen was actually holding pieces of candy.

That incident triggered a lawsuit by the Robbins family, which claimed that the district could turn on laptop webcams in students' homes at will and use them to conduct surveillance on students and their families.

The district, which has purchased Apple MacBook laptops for school and home use by high school students, says the webcams are used by a computer-theft security system, turned on only to track down lost, stolen, or missing laptops by taking a photo of whoever started up the computer after a theft tracker was activated.

The system, now out of commission, was used 42 times this school year, the district said, acknowledging parents and students had not been told it existed. Haltzman has said Robbins was using his district-issued laptop at home, with no one objecting or reporting it missing.

Contact staff writer Dan Hardy

at 610-313-8134 or dhardy@phillynews.com.

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