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School Spies on Students at Home With Webcams

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Wow: "Big Brother" really is watching!

boy using computer

Michelle Brownlow: When the assistant principal of Harriton High School in Lower Merion Township, Pa., called Michael and Holly Robbins and told them that their son was in trouble due to inappropriate behavior, they were as disappointed as any parents would be. Little did they know, their disdain would soon shift from their son's actions to their school district's.

This wealthy district issues a laptop to each of its students, to be toted to and from school. The laptops come equipped with all the bells and whistles, including webcams. And it was one of these webcams that caused the Robbins family to file a class-action complaint against the Lower Merion School District.

Unbeknownst to parents or students, the school's faculty had the ability to remotely activate any student's webcam at any time. Teachers and administrators could watch the students at home without their knowledge, the suit claims. The Robbins' son, in fact, wasn't facing possible punishment for behavior witnessed at school, but for something that a faculty member had seen him do via webcam while he was home

The suit, filed Tuesday, says that unnamed officials at the school remotely activated the webcam on a student's computer last year because the district believed he "was engaged in improper behavior in his home," reports Harriton's assistant principal had confronted the student for "improper behavior" on November 11, citing as evidence a photograph taken by webcam.

As a parent, this story scares me. I spend a lot of time teaching my children the value of privacy and the importance of self-respect. The last entity I want to have to worry about crossing those lines is my school district.

What if someone from the school took a peek while a student was undressing? What if a student's laptop was left in Mom and Dad's room ... and the webcam caught them in a compromising position? This just boggles the mind.

In a statement on the school district's website, the superintendent said, "The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated, effective today."

Later, he added, "Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature would be activated by the District's security and technology departments. The security feature's capabilities were limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator's screen. This feature was only used for the narrow purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever."

The moral of the story? Read the fine print on every permission slip you sign for your children. (Although, according to what was reported in court, there was no such clause in the student-laptop agreement that had been sent home with Lower Merion's students.)

Internet safety expert Lori Getz says, "It is never in the best interest of a school to become the cyber-police.  We are here to educate our students and by purposely entering their home environment to catch them doing something wrong goes against the core of our pedagogy! When a problem related to the Internet is brought to the attention of the school because it affects a student, it gives the school an opportunity to look at this from an educational and developmental perspective. But schools must tread lightly, even students are entitled to their privacy!"

You would think a school district would be well-versed in the United States Constitution.

Fourth Amendment, people! Read it!

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10 comments so far | Post a comment now
Sara February 19, 2010, 6:31 AM

So the laptop was reported stolen and the school activated the tracking software and took a picture of the kid using it and he got in trouble.

I see no problem with that. Stolen computers need to be recovered.

melissa February 19, 2010, 6:57 AM

Did you read the article. This feature is intended for tracking down stolen laptops. That is not why they activated in this particular incident. The suit, filed Tuesday, says unnamed school officials at the school remotely activated the webcam on a student’s computer last year because the district believed he “was engaged in improper behavior in his home,” reports They invaded this child’s privacy and I would be furious if I was the mother of this child. Shame on the school.

Anonymous Mom February 19, 2010, 7:30 AM

Ditto, Melissa. They’re not saying he stole the laptop. They’re saying he did something he wasn’t supposed to be doing AT HOME while they were SPYING ON HIM (let’s call it what it is, people) through his school computer. It’s probably why they issued the laptop to him in the first place. I’m not the litigious sort but if this had happened to my daughter, I’d be calling a lawyer so fast it’d make your head spin.

Rita February 19, 2010, 10:19 PM

I wanna know what he was supposedly doing in his own home that was deemed inappropriate!

The faculty member who invaded the teen’s privacy needs a talking-to as well.

Ridiculous. Who knows how many other teens (and possibly other younger siblings) they spied on?

JS OBrien February 20, 2010, 10:26 AM

Sara, even IF the computer was reported stolen (and there are very substantial doubts, at this time, that this is the case), it does not excuse the school district. The district used software that turned these computers into electronic listening devices. Thankfully, no one in this country is allowed to use an electronic listening device to record ANYTHING in anyone else’s home without a warrant.

The school district obviously thought that, just because something it possible to do electronically, it should be done. Quite the contrary. You cannot bug someone’s home without legal authorization to do so. Period.

ChrisS February 20, 2010, 11:34 AM

Sara, First and foremost the laptop was never reported stolen. The child in question was approached by a person who is not supposed to even have access to the cameras or pictures. The child was reprimanded for ‘inappropriate behavior’ that was OFF SCHOOL GROUNDS!

New information has come out that they thought he was taking drugs but was in reality popping Mink-n-Ike candies in his mouth.

This has to be the most disgusting thing I haev heard a school do.

Priss February 20, 2010, 7:28 PM

What bothers me is that the school district has appointed themselves the de facto parents of these kids. Instead of TEACHING basics that they’re paid to do, they’ve decided they will replace the parents entirely.

This is the issue that disturbs me the most. They wanted to punish this child for something he did at HOME that his own PARENTS should be handling.

More so, if they were concerned about this, suspension (what they intended to do) probably wouldn’t change the child’s behavior.

What was the “inappropriate behavior”? Masturbation? making out with a girl? Listening to bad music? Playing violent video games? None of these reports ever say exactly what they thought they needed to react to. If it wasn’t illegal and they couldn’t call the police to handle something, what WAS it that was so horrible that this kid was doing outside of school and not during school hours?

People don’t get it. The school districts believe they have every right to take away the duty of parents to raise children.

And when institutions start raising all kids, things will go terribly wrong.

Anonymous February 22, 2010, 11:18 AM

The truly frightening thing about this incident is that it is part of the “agenda” wherein all parental rights will be taken away from parents and the “state” will, by law, assume the responsibilty of raising our children and indoctrinating them with antisocial, antiparent, pro government propaganda. If this incident is taken to court, those who support this agenda may see it as an opportunity to use all their resources to make sure they “win” the case, thereby establishing a precedent. Then it will be easier to make it a law. This agenda is already being agressively pushed in the U.K. and in our country as well, albeit quietly and mostly somewhat underground. However, it has the blessing and full support of high ranking political leaders.

Jake April 6, 2010, 8:58 AM

I don’t understand why you Americans don’t see what your government is up to. You are losing all your freedoms a little at a time and you aren’t doing anything about it. What is wrong with you? You used to be the greatest example of liberty on the planet but now, everyday you look more and more like a fascist state. I miss the old America, before 911.

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