Editorial: Untangling a legal web

Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. in May, releasing findings from an internal study of the Lower Merion School District's webcam incident. He is the district's lead attorney.
Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. in May, releasing findings from an internal study of the Lower Merion School District's webcam incident. He is the district's lead attorney.
Posted: July 20, 2010

With lawyers' fees approaching $1 million, the webcam controversy in the Lower Merion School District has become a legal feeding frenzy best brought to a speedy conclusion.

What Lower Merion students and their parents are waiting to learn, first and foremost, is that the highly regarded district has put policies in place to prevent any repeat of the surreptitious webcam photos taken of students with school-issued laptops reported missing.

Once that's better assured, the six-month legal saga conceivably could play out at a lower decibel level - and with an eye toward sparing school taxpayers from shouldering an even more staggering financial burden.

That may not be possible if the privacy lawsuit by Harriton High School student Blake J. Robbins is certified by a federal judge as a class action - a move opposed by many students' families. There's also an FBI look at whether laws were violated by school administrators and technology staffers in monitoring webcam images without alerting students.

For now, though, it's good news that Lower Merion school officials finally are making tangible progress toward crafting policies that should have been put in place two years ago, when the district first issued student laptops.

The proposed policy on tracking missing computers that got its first look Monday night from Lower Merion school directors couldn't be more clear: "At no time will the laptop camera be activated remotely, nor will screen shots, audio, video or on-screen text be remotely monitored," it states. Other proposals provide for new training, and barring staff from accessing any student computer files.

An in-house review of the misguided decision to enable the remote-camera feature of the 2,600-plus computers found that more than 58,000 photos and screen images were recorded. Despite the review's conclusion that no students were depicted in "salacious" or compromising situations, Lower Merion families had every right to be shocked.

As an antitheft strategy, the webcam tracking was overkill - and not even as useful as other means. Then failing to disclose the webcam use was a huge gaffe, compounded by a lack of policies safeguarding students' privacy.

Going forward, the district could take a cue from hotels and simply require parents to register a credit card that would be charged for any lost computer.

The policies that emerge should be stronger because the district assembled a large advisory group, including IT professionals and community volunteers, many also with expertise.

The irony of Lower Merion's plight is that the school district's laptop program once was viewed as cutting-edge. Now the challenge is to try to reclaim some of that prestige with the new computer privacy safeguards.

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