Student Blake Robbins in Lower Merion webcam case signs settlement

Blake Robbins is now a junior at Harriton.
Blake Robbins is now a junior at Harriton.
Posted: October 13, 2010

Tuesday didn't feel all that different, Blake Robbins said.

Sure, he might have heard a comment or two in the Harriton High School halls. One kid flashed him a thumbs-down, Robbins said, but he couldn't be certain why.

Otherwise, the school day was routine, said Robbins, a 16-year-old junior. He took home his school-issued laptop. Even used its webcam to snap a photo, he said.

But Tuesday wasn't typical.

About 3 p.m., Robbins and his parents signed papers to settle their headline-getting claim that the Lower Merion School District used a laptop webcam to spy on him in their Penn Valley home.

The deal will pay Robbins $175,000, most placed in trust until he turns 18. He'll get a slice - $25,000 - that he said he would spend on "some nice used car."

If Robbins was relieved or elated, he hid it well. In a brief phone interview Tuesday, he spoke in the monosyllabic tones of a teenager who had long since moved on from his 15 minutes of fame.

"It's not my whole life," he said. "It's just a part of it."

The settlement was one of two approved Monday night by a Lower Merion school board hoping to end the furor over an ill-starred program for tracking school-issued laptops.

Jalil Hasan, who graduated from Lower Merion High School in June, is to get $10,000 to settle a similar claim. And the district will pay the $425,000 legal fees of Mark Haltzman, who represented both students and helped draft an injunction covering all students.

U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois could formally approve the settlements Wednesday. On Tuesday, the judge signed the permanent injunction barring Lower Merion from tracking laptops without consent from students and their parents.

Together, the steps appeared to end a case that catapulted the Robbinses and the district into the spotlight and stirred debate about the use of technology in schools.

Robbins' suit, filed in February, claimed school employees secretly snapped hundreds of webcam photos of him last fall. School officials denied any spying, but later acknowledged flaws in the planning and oversight of the system they used for two years to track missing computers.

Both sides had talked of resolving the case before this school year began. Those hopes melted as acrimony rose. After months of tongue-biting restraint, the board and its lawyers in August filed a 46-page brief that challenged Haltzman's fees and accused the Robbinses of being more interested in a payout than privacy concerns.

A settlement seemed unlikely. "We assumed we'd have a trial, because plaintiffs' counsel [Haltzman] took an incredibly aggressive posture against the school district," School Board President David Ebby said.

But several recent events paved the way for a settlement.

First, U.S. Attorney Zane Memeger announced that his office had found no evidence of a crime and would end its investigation.

Around the same time, the district implemented expanded technology rules and policies. One lets any student opt out of the laptop program; another added a requirement that no laptop be tracked without permission from students and parents.

Then, the district's insurer, Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance, which had resisted paying any claims in the case, signaled a willingness to shoulder some of the ballooning costs. Ultimately, the insurer agreed to cover $1.2 million - or about two-thirds - of the settlement costs and lawyers' fees.

When Graphic Arts eased its stance, "it was clear that there may be a window here," said Henry E. Hockeimer, the district's lead lawyer.

Finally, there was pressure from the judge. DuBois ordered the two sides out of the headlines and into negotiations. With U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter as mediator, Robbins' parents, Ebby and two board members, and the lawyers spent two full days last month in settlement talks.

School board members met twice to review the settlement terms before voting Monday to approve the deals.

Ebby reiterated Tuesday that he believed a trial would have allowed the district to tell the "untold story" of Robbins' claims. But he said settlements were the most responsible way for the district to protect its taxpayers and students, including Robbins. "That's the nature of a compromise," he said.

Robbins' mother, Holly, said the suit may be over, "but the case goes on." She vowed to lobby federal legislators to address issues such as laptop surveillance.

She and her husband said they never envisioned the case would get the worldwide spotlight it did. Michael Robbins recalled that his wife asked him before they filed if he thought their suit would draw much attention.

"Probably not a whole lot," Robbins said he replied. "Maybe a little article in one of the local newspapers."


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

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