Lower Merion district would ban all webcam surveillance

Posted: July 20, 2010

The Lower Merion School District is considering a new written policy to ban all webcam surveillance by district officials.

The proposed rule, part of a slate of new technology regulations introduced Monday night at a school board meeting at Penn Valley Elementary School, follows months of controversy in the wake of one student's privacy lawsuit over webcam monitoring.

Also under consideration are stringent guidelines for when the student-issued computers' tracking software can be activated - only with written permission from a student and parent after a reported computer disappearance - and for the circumstances under which district officials can access files on the computers if misuse is suspected. Even administrative remote access to repair technical problems would require formal, recorded permission under one proposed change.

The policy changes could be approved as soon as the district's Aug. 16 meeting and include new written policies for training requirements and computer responsibility, areas in which the district was criticized after allegations of webcam surveillance came to light in a February lawsuit filed by Harriton High School student Blake J. Robbins. The suit is pending, with the district and the Robbins family at odds over whether the suit should be a class action that covers all students to whom the district issued laptops.

Board members offered little in the way of direct appraisal of the proposed rules changes, which were scheduled to be posted to the district website, LMSD.org.

Several board members asked consultant Christopher Burgher of SunGard Availability Services, the Wayne firm hired to audit district policies, about the various corporate and educational policies that had influenced the proposals.

"I don't want to tie us up in a web so tight that we can't operate efficiently," board member Jerold Novick said.

Burgher and district officials said the new rules would not be burdensome to administer.

"None of these changes in policy will tie us up or make it harder to run the program," Superintendent Christopher McGinley said.

The policies will next be discussed at a district committee meeting Aug. 5.

Contact staff writer Derrick Nunnally at 610-313-8212 or dnunnally@phillynews.com.

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