Lower Merion settles webcam lawsuits

Blake Robbins (left), a Harriton High School junior, was awarded $175,000. Jalil Hasan (right), who graduated in June from Lower Merion High School, was awarded $10,000. (File photos)
Blake Robbins (left), a Harriton High School junior, was awarded $175,000. Jalil Hasan (right), who graduated in June from Lower Merion High School, was awarded $10,000. (File photos) (Joshua Mellman)
Posted: October 11, 2010

The Lower Merion School District will pay more than $600,000 to settle two lawsuits over its tracking of student laptops, ending an eight-month saga that thrust the elite district into a global spotlight and stirred questions about technology and privacy in schools.

The school board members voted unanimously Monday night to pay $185,000 to two students who sued the school for secretly activating the webcams on their laptops. The bulk of the money, $175,000, will be put in trust for Blake Robbins, the Harriton High School junior whose lawsuit first brought the issue to light. Jalil Hasan, who graduated in June from Lower Merion High School and filed a lawsuit this summer, will receive $10,000.

The district will also pay $425,000 in legal fees to the students' attorney, Mark Haltzman.

School Board President David Ebby said the board reached the agreements after intensive behind-the- scenes talks and after settling with its insurance company, which had contended such claims weren't covered under the district's multimillion-dollar liability policy. The insurer, Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance, will cover $1.2 million of the fees and awards.

"We believe that his settlement enables us to move forward in a way that is most sensitive to our students, taxpayers and entire school district community," said Ebby.

The settlements could close one of the more unflattering chapters in Lower Merion's history.

Beginning in 2008, the district rolled out a plan to give the nearly 2,300 students at its two high schools their own laptop computers to use in class and take home each day. But administrators never told students that missing computers could be remotely tracked using software that let technicians turn on laptop webcams and see what was on a user's screen.

That capability burst into public view when Robbins and his parents filed a federal class-action lawsuit in February. In it, they claimed that the school district had secretly snapped hundreds of images from the teen's laptop, including one when he was sleeping in his bedroom. Robbins learned of the technology, they said, when an assistant principal at his school confronted him with a webcam photo.

Lower Merion immediately disabled the technology, suspended two staffers who oversaw the tracking, apologized to students and parents, and hired a team of lawyers and computer specialists to investigate.

Their report found no proof that employees intentionally spied on students, but said that the system suffered from poor planning and lax oversight. In less than two years, they said, the system had stored more than 56,000 images, most from missing laptops. But the total included images of about 40 students whose webcams kept shooting – sometimes every 15 minutes – even after they had recovered their computer.

Robbins' attorney won a temporary injunction in May and asked the judge to certify the case as a class-action covering every Lower Merion student. Such a ruling would also force Lower Merion to pay his fees as part of any settlement.

The district resisted such a step, countering that it quickly had taken steps to end the practice.

The district's lawyers, along with a group of Lower Merion parents who asked to join the case, argued that Robbins wasn't representative of every student. They challenged why, if his family was so concerned about privacy, it waited months to bring the case after learning about the technology, and then shared photos of the teen with the media.

They also questioned Haltzman's request for nearly $500,000 in fees and expenses, arguing that he had inflated costs or was seeking payment for services that benefited his clients more than any class.

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