Lower Merion school board to consider webcam policy

Posted: July 19, 2010

The laptops are locked away for the summer, new school policies drafted, court orders signed, and public apologies extended.

But students and parents in the Lower Merion School District who hoped to begin the next school year with the webcam-monitoring furor behind them might think again.

The lawsuit that first exposed the district's practice of secretly activating webcams on student laptops shows no signs of ending, with lawyers last week trading barbs over who was delaying the case and why.

The U.S. Attorney's Office will not discuss its probe into the matter. And two Lower Merion employees suspended with pay since February have not been told whether or when they will get their jobs back.

Meanwhile, the school district's legal tab for the case - which last month was nearing $1 million and climbing - remains the subject of a separate dispute with its insurer.

After working with a consultant in recent months to review and revise its technology policies, the school board is expected to consider new policies Monday, including letters about the laptop program that will go to all students and parents. And a committee of 60 administrators, teachers, parents, and students has been meeting to examine the webcam issue and recommend more changes.

"Our goal is to be a national model when it comes to the intersection of technology, privacy, and security," said spokesman Doug Young.

But still looming is the lawsuit by a Harriton High School student that brought global attention to Lower Merion and stirred debate.

On Friday, attorneys for the school district asked a judge to deny a bid by the student, Blake Robbins, and his attorney to certify the lawsuit as a class-action matter.

In a motion to U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois, the district's attorneys said that Robbins was not representative of a larger class and that steps taken by Lower Merion - and an injunction signed by the judge - should prevent the practice from happening again.

"Certification would in fact be just the first of several potentially burdensome and expensive steps," said the motion, signed by four Ballard Spahr L.L.P. attorneys.

Robbins' attorney, Mark S. Haltzman, said the school district's motion reneged on an earlier agreement not to fight class certification. He said it was a ploy to deter other students from suing for being photographed by their laptop webcams.

"They're trying to make it more difficult for those they have injured to recover," Haltzman said.

Though narrow in a legal sense, the outcome of the squabble could have a broader effect.

Without class-action status, the case could ultimately be cast as an overblown fight between Lower Merion and a single family - one that happened to have a history of debts and litigation - instead of a transgression against 2,300 students and families in one of the state's elite public school districts.

Haltzman contends that class certification guarantees a more thorough and lasting protection for Lower Merion students. He also said it would not affect how much money he, the Robbinses, or anyone else might get in a settlement; he has said he will not seek damages for the class.

"I'm not in any better position or worse position because it's a class action," he said.

Attorneys for the school district say Robbins cannot represent a class because no other student has made claims like his. They noted that parents of more than 500 Lower Merion students signed a petition last winter asking not to be included in any suit - and that some of those parents plan to file their own opposition to class certification.

"No other students [were] treated in the same or even a remotely similar manner as the proposed class representative, Mr. Robbins," the motion states.

In his lawsuit, Robbins alleged that the district invaded his privacy by snapping webcam shots of him in his Penn Valley house.

The district has not filed a formal response in court, but a report by its internal investigators said that staffers activated Robbins' webcam because he took a loaner computer from school without permission or having paid a required insurance fee.

An assistant principal later confronted Robbins with a webcam photo she thought showed him with a handful of illegal pills in his bedroom. Robbins said it was candy.

In the last six weeks, dozens of other students have been notified that they were secretly photographed by their webcams and invited to privately review the photos. A second federal judge is overseeing that process.

The district's internal investigation concluded that laptop webcams had been activated 76 times in less than two years, but that none of the photos captured was salacious. Investigators also said there was no evidence that employees used the technology to spy on students.

Most of the computers had been reported lost or stolen. But the district acknowledged that more than half of the 58,000 photos and screenshots occurred because district technicians did not or forgot to turn off webcams and tracking software on laptops that were recovered.

Haltzman contends that the LANrev software - which programmed webcams to snap a picture every 15 seconds the laptop was running - photographed more students than the district has identified or acknowledged.

The district's lead attorney, Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., declined to comment Friday, except to point to the report that said computer experts hired by the district had retrieved all the photos.

Meanwhile, the only Lower Merion employees who could activate the monitoring system remain out of work. Information systems coordinator Carol Cafiero and technician Michael Perbix were placed on administrative leave in February but continue to draw their salaries - nearly $200,000 combined annually.

Cafiero's attorney, Charles Mandracchia, said she was losing hope that the district would pay her legal bills or reinstate her.

Those fees and salaries represent a fraction of the overall cost to the district thus far. Through May, the Ballard Spahr law firm and L-3 Communications had billed Lower Merion more than $780,000 for their work on the case.

Young, the district spokesman, said he expected more bills soon. The Robbinses' attorney also plans to ask the court to make the school district pay his fees - which by early June were $148,000.

Still unresolved is who will pay those bills or any potential settlements. The school district and its insurance company, Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Co. Inc., have filed competing claims in federal court over who should pay. Each accuses the other of breaching its contract.

A judge has scheduled a conference on the matter for Aug. 25. Two weeks later, students report for the new school year.


Contact staff writer John P. Martin at 610-313-8120 or jmartin@phillynews.com.

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