Pa. school district laptop spying case settled for $610,000

Lower Merion school district near Philadelphia accused of spying on students through webcams

The sometimes surreal case of the school district that allegedly spied on students through their laptop computer cameras ended last night as the parties involved came to a $610,000 settlement.

The Lower Merion School District will pay $185,000 to the two students who claimed the district spied on them by secretly activating the webcams on their laptops.  Another $175,000, will be put in trust for Blake Robbins, the student whose family pointed out the problem last winter. Another student will get $10,000. A large chunk, $425,000 will go toward legal fees.

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According to a Philadelphia Inquirer story: "The announcement brought an abrupt end to a case that divided Lower Merion parents, fueled an acrimonious court battle, and was on pace to cost the district several million dollars.  School Board President David Ebby said the board decided to settle after the district's insurance company agreed to cover $1.2 million of the costs. That insurer, Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance, initially refused to pay any claims because it said privacy-invasion claims were not covered under the district's multimillion-dollar liability policy. Ebby also said the board thought a protracted trial could hurt the district and its families."

The school district came under fire earlier this year when a student's family filed a lawsuit charging the district with spying on them. The district had been using software that would remotely capture photographs from webcams on students' computers when the laptops were reported lost or stolen. That software did not let an administrator remotely take photographs via the webcam on command, rather it collected images automatically.  Investigators ultimately found that the district took more than 30,000 photographs using the students' Webcams, and another 27,000 screenshots using software designed to track lost, missing or stolen laptops, according to a report commissioned by Lower Merion.

According to a settlement letter posted on the Lower Merion Web site:

"We believe this settlement enables us to move forward in a way that is most sensitive to our students, taxpayers and the entire school district community. The agreement is comprehensive, and effectively resolves all components of the laptop litigation, including the Robbins and Hasan cases and the Graphic Arts insurance case. It is the product of a lengthy, court-ordered mediation involving the active participation of Judge Jan E. DuBois and Chief Magistrate Judge Reuter. The terms of the agreement have been thoroughly reviewed in a number of executive sessions over the past few weeks. Throughout the entire process, the Board has aggressively sought to protect the interests of our taxpayers.

Earlier this summer, the U.S. Attorney's Office, the FBI and the Montgomery County District Attorney cleared the District, and its employees - current and former -- of any criminal wrongdoing. That was an important moment for us -- it confirmed the results of an independent investigation and the District's own initial findings. The District acknowledged and apologized for any mistakes and addressed them immediately. We revised our policies and procedures, reaffirmed our commitment to technology and put safeguards into place to ensure the privacy of our students, staff and school families.

It is important to note that when concerns are brought to us, they are taken seriously. Parents and community members frequently share ideas, critiques and suggestions with the administration and the Board - at public meetings and in less formal settings. We always do our best to maintain an open, honest and responsive dialogue with all of our stakeholders. I mention this because I want you to know that had concerns about privacy been brought to the Board without legal action, they would have been addressed effectively and immediately as well, without additional costs to taxpayers. I know it may be difficult for some to believe - especially in an era when the sensational often trumps the rational, but it is true. As a District, we are always striving to do what's best for students."

The settlement needs to be approved by f U.S. District Judge DuBois.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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