Lower Merion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

Lower Merion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

Summary: Just as 1:1 efforts were gaining momentum, serious errors in judgment in a Pennsylvania school district threaten to put on the brakes.


Not surprisingly, the Lower Merion School District, which has been embroiled in a scandal over the use student laptop webcams, announced a settlement yesterday with all involved parties. While this particular story may be over, questions linger for many schools looking to provide student laptops. If ever there was a disincentive for 1:1 education, this is it.

The $610,000 settlement between the Pennsylvania school district and students who were watched via the remotely activated webcams on their school-issued laptops, ends months of litigation. Federal and local authorities also have chosen not to pursue criminal charges against the district or any of its staff, despite pictures being taken of students sleeping and partially undressed. The remote monitoring capabilities, according to the school, were implemented to allow location of the laptops if they were stolen. Clearly, they were able to locate the laptops in the students' bedrooms without much difficulty.

All that aside, though, the unfortunate side effect of bad judgment in Lower Merion (yes, I'm being very diplomatic) is that schools considering 1:1 programs for their students now need to contend with parents, school committees, and administrators gun shy about expensive litigation. Schools have more than enough liability to begin with and adding another layer is never an attractive option.

Obviously, clear policies and transparent actions (as well as any number of great anti-theft measures that don't involve taking pictures with a web cam that may or may not be on and may or may not be looking at a student instead of a thief) would have prevented what amounts to close to 2 million dollars worth of litigation in Lower Merion ($1.2 million has already been spent on the case). Yet schools looking at major investments in technology have enough hurdles surrounding great implementations and classroom integration. They don't need legal hurdles and bad precedents fighting against them as well.

Lower Merion now has a pretty solid set of policies in place regarding the laptops (surprise) and, in fact, it can serve as a model for other districts looking to roll out such programs. The key message? Let's learn from Lower Merion and do 1:1 the right way rather than let expensive litigation and liability concerns prevent us from doing it at all.

Topics: Hardware, Enterprise Software, Laptops, Legal, Mobility

Christopher Dawson

About Christopher Dawson

Chris Dawson is a freelance writer, consultant, and policy advocate with 20 years of experience in education, technology, and the intersection of the two.

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  • RE: Lower Merrion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

    I think that the school district got off easy. You're not going to convince me that this was an innocent ignorance of the technology. They knew exactly what they were doing!
  • RE: Lower Merrion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

    I've never believed the official line anyway. What good does a cam do to help you locate a stolen laptop? If they really wanted a way to locate them, they'd put something in them that tracks their <i>location</i>, like a standard-issue cellphone GPS chip.
  • RE: Lower Merrion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

    They could have paid me $1M and I would have created a great set of policies and tested and recommended tracking solutions that would pass any acid test. That would have still saved them the , almost, second mill that was spent on litigation. Lost their chance to save big bucks.

    Also shame on the authorities that didn't pursue criminal charges on pictures taken of "partially undressed" students. Sounds like a voyeur 's dream come true.
  • RE: Lower Merrion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

    This case involves constitutional privacy rights AS WELL potential child porn charges...and yet, no criminal prosecution, slap on the wrist fines, and likely the guilty parties (WHO KNEW *EXACTLY* WHAT THEY WERE DOING) still have jobs. Depending on the EXACT wording of the laptop loan contract, it might also constitute breach of contract.<br><br>If a kid used that very same webcam to take a photo of themselves, and sent it out, they could (and likely would) be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.<br><br>Today the government has proven itself FULLY incapable of regulating corruption within itself....because it is unwilling to, and answerable to no one. Next election, I hope the Lower Merrion community votes out its entire school board, the DA's office, and basically EVERYONE knowledgable and responsible for this. <br><br>If this case sets a precedent, then it ERODES our basic rights.
  • RE: Lower Merrion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

    How's this for a policy that prevents lawsuits:

    We control your access to inappropriate content by blocking it at our firewall. Your parents are responsible to control such access when you are away from school. We use management features to control things like app installation, unapproved configuration changes, etc. We don't monitor or spy on you in any way. We buy insurance that covers the hardware, and you pay for it. If you get caught in illegal activites, you are subject to the same sanctions as if you owned the PC. When you return the PC we will wipe the drive and install a new image for the next student. Full stop.

    I'm sorry the school district had to go through all this cost and aggravation. I think it would have been more appropriate to save the taxpayers by just firing everyone who was involved or had knowledge of the spying, the whole IT department, and all their immediate supervisors, including especially the principal whose unauthorized monitoring started the whole mess.
  • RE: Lower Merrion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

    The incident that set off this fiasco and brought the issue to light had nothing to do with stolen laptops. The school authorities attempted to discipline a student that was observed taking "drugs" (actually Tic-Tacs) when monitored through the webcam at his home, at night. So here is a school district spying on students free time and attempting to control them. All completely illegal and just plain wrong. And then administrators are stupid enough to admit their spying in an attempt to regulate the personal lives of citizens.

    The fact that the settlement is so small shows that the school district can afford much better legal representation (Lower Merion taxpayer funded) than the students families. Quite a shame.
    • RE: Lower Merrion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

      Agreed. The only thing that pmom is that they basically do the same thing through facebook and other social sites with nary a peep from anyone. Go figure!
  • Clearly you have no children

    I would be outraged if this happened to one or more of my kids and the school has no excuse for their actions. There was a story (a local news piece) done on the laptop security prior to this lawsuit going down and you can see in it the lazfair attitude the school employees have about it; no respct at all for privacy.

    BTW - The school DOES NOT own the laptops and tehrefore does NOT have the final word on requirements for students to use them. The laptops and everything at teh school is the property of the people and the school is merley the management of that property. Its like saying we can't get uipset about the government wasting our money because we pay them the taxes. Its our money and those laptops belong to the community and not the school. The school used very poor judgement and should be thankful they got off soo easy, something that would not have been the case for anyone who works outside of the governement. Any non-governement employee would have been nailed to the wall for doing something like this.
  • RE: Lower Merrion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

    I don't understand why there weren't criminal charges for the administrators spying on the kids. I'm from the area and I'm outraged that the vice principal in question didn't face a criminal investigation.
  • Settlement is fine, but why no pursuit of criminal charges?

    The settlement is a good idea, there's really not a lot of point of making this cost the taxpayers a whole lot more, and you know it would. As long as it's acceptable to the families then that works. The biggest win here is that the school system will certainly put policies in place, with teeth, against this kind of thing (more on that in a minute).

    On the other hand, the AG deciding that there's no criminal intent is ridiculous. You think the IT people didn't know they were spying on the students? You think they didn't know it was wrong? Come on, they were passing around pictures like trading cards, and had triggered the cameras hundreds of times each in the cases we know about ... and in both of the cases in the lawsuit the laptops had NOT been reported lost or stolen.

    That is a serious breach of the law (same issue as if your neighbor videotapes you in your living room) on top of a huge ethical problem and it would seem that it was also a violation of the school's policy even before the lawsuit. Just about everyone involved should have been fired and prosecuted and the AG should be ashamed at just letting it go.

    jim frost
    • RE: Lower Merrion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

      @jimfrost I completely agree with you, the IT people knew it and one of them was amused by it. In addition, that vice principal who reprimanded the kid for the Mike and Ikes had to have known spying in someone's house is illegal, there's absolutely no way she graduated from high school without realizing that.
  • It did not have to be this way...

    The school district got off very easy on this on... I would have not been so kind!

    Everyone in the decision and approval process should be fired or replaced. The consulting company or however recommended this solution should also have to pay.

    There were and are several recognized and reputable solutions available to track, identify and locate a suspected missing unit. The best solution regularly notifies a central monitoring station of the unit IP address.

    The school district would then notify the central monitoring station when it suspects a missing unit. The monitor would then look for the unit the next time it connects to the internet and record the IP address. The IP address can be used to locate the physical location address of the unit by contacting the Internet service provider that is the registered owner of the IP address. The school can then use the information to verify it is a valid address for the registered student. If they suspect the unit is not with the registered student, they can provide the information to the appropriate law enforcement authority. Real simple, non-intrusive and less expensive than a law suite.
  • RE: Lower Merrion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

    This is downright ugly. The last thing that we needed is for our privacy to be invaded - especially our kids'. Who knows, any of those officials could be pedophiles? The idea of being watched is really crazy.

  • 70% to the lawyers

    What is not mentioned here is that the original plaintiff is getting $175K, another student receives only $10K, but the lawyer(s) collect an indecent $425,000. Something is wrong when a case is so simple, straightforward and short-lived, but the lawyer(s) collect more than twice as much as the clients.
  • RE: Lower Merrion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

    When I saw the headline, I thought that surely this was something completely different. I assumed that there was no way the school district was doing the spying. I figured some student had done something.

    I am shocked that it turned out to be what it was. I was thinking to myself, if you are the school district, make sure the laptops do not have cameras, just to be sure that no one does anything stupid. To have remote activation of the cameras, even without using it, is poor judgment. Using it without the machine being reported lost or stolen is criminal.