Lower Merion spycam settlement: Fallout for student laptop programs?

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

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.

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