The Philadelphia storyCase against teachers using Web cams to monitor students' bedrooms, laptops dropped

Published 19 August 2010

Federal investigations into whether a Pennsylvania school district used school-issue laptops to take pictures of students — and of what they were doing in their bed rooms and online — did not yield enough evidence to file charges; Lower Merion School District monitored more than 40 students who were issued laptop computers; the monitoring generated 30,881 Webcam photographs of students, and 27,761 screenshots of Web sites they visited

The federal government has ended its investigation of allegations that a Pennsylvania school district used Webcams on school-issued laptop computers to monitor the activities of students both at school and at home.

U.S. Attorney Zane David Memeger announced in Philadelphia on Tuesday that he would not file charges against officials in the Lower Merion School District. He said the review was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as local and county law enforcement officials.

“We have not found evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone involved had criminal intent,” Memeger said.

The government began the investigation after revelations in February that school officials were monitoring students through the Web camera on their school-supplied laptops. The officials also had the ability to monitor students by taking multiple screenshots of the content on the student’s computer screen (“The Philadelphia Story, cont.,” 19 April 2010 HSNW).

The Christian Science Monitor’s Warren Richey writes that the computer programs that enabled the monitoring were justified as an antitheft program. Students and their parents, however, were not told of the monitoring capability, and the school district had no guidelines on who would be monitored and under what conditions.

The issue became public when a 15-year old student at the local high school, Blake Robbins, and his parents filed a class action lawsuit against the school district for allegedly violating federal computer privacy laws and the Fourth Amendment.

According to the complaint, school officials confronted Robbins, telling him they suspected he had engaged in “improper behavior in his home.” They cited as evidence a photograph taken from the Webcam in his school-issued laptop computer.

The school district later acknowledged that it could remotely activate the Webcam at any time — including in the student’s bedroom.

According to school officials, they monitored Robbins from 20 October 2009 to 4 November 2009. Without his knowledge, they took 210 Webcam photos of Robbins in his bedroom — doing what 15-year olds do in their bedrooms — and 218 screenshots of the information on the teen’s computer screen.

The class action lawsuit is pending.

Richey notes that Robbins was not alone in being monitored. In the meantime, the school district hired a consultant to conduct an investigation. According to the consultant’s report, issued 3 May, officials monitored more than forty students who were issued laptop computers. Those incidents generated 30,881 Webcam photographs of students, and 27,761 screenshots.

In the case of ten of the students, the consultant was unable to determine any authorization for the monitoring activity, the report says. That monitoring generated 2,507 photographs and 2,212 screenshots. The report says that images were only recovered for three of the ten students.

The school board has adopted new laptop computer policies.

Lower Merion School District Superintendent Dr. Christopher McGinley said the U.S. attorney’s announcement not to file charges supports the findings of the district’s own internal investigation.

Robbins’ lawyer said the case points up the need for tighter privacy laws. Without new laws “our students will continue to remain vulnerable,” said lawyer Mark Haltzman.