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Teachers have long attempted to dissuade misbehavior by students–particularly those who are out of their teacher’s sight–by warning them that teachers have “eyes in the back of their heads.” Now, teachers and administrators at Harriton High School in the Lower Merion School District have actually acquired the ability to know what their students are doing at all times–even when they are technically out of the teachers’ “sight”–and it has resulted in a lawsuit and a criminal investigation. The parents of 15-year-old student Blake Robbins have sued the school district alleging that the school district “has the ability to remotely activate the webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop computer issued by the school district at any time it chose [sic] and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam, all without the knowledge, permission, or authorization of any persons then and there using the laptop computer.” The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a brief in support of the plaintiffs, stating that the school district may have violated Robbins’s rights to privacy and to freedom from unreasonable seizure. The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office have opened an investigation into the matter and will apparently attempt to determine whether the school district violated federal wiretap or computer intrusion laws.
The controversy began when Robbins was allegedly confronted by the Harriton High School assistant principal and accused of possessing illegal pills and selling drugs. The assistant principal allegedly cited as evidence of this activity a picture captured by the webcam of Robbins’s school-issued laptop (although Robbins insists that the “pills” in the picture were actually Mike & Ike candies). The school-issued laptops, which are given to each student, are equipped with webcams for the stated purpose of preventing theft. Robbins contends that his laptop was not reported lost or stolen prior to his encounter with the assistant principal.
The school district has admitted that it has activated the webcams forty-two times so far this school year, although it contends that theft was suspected in each instance. The district has also admitted that parents and students were not properly notified of the extent to which the district could monitor the computers. Prior to receiving a laptop, students and parents had to sign an “acceptable use agreement,” which referenced the school’s ability to “monitor” the computer, but did not fully explain this feature.
The school district is likely to face significant liability as a result of its actions, as well it should. Regardless of whether a suspected theft initially motivated the use of Robbins’s webcam, the school district’s monitoring of his computer without his knowledge or consent was clearly inappropriate and most likely illegal. The incident is further inexcusable because the situation could easily have been avoided through full disclosure and informed consent. The Lower Merion School District will likely serve as an example to any other teachers and administrators who may be tempted to take the notion of “eyes in the back of their heads” a bit too literally.
– Tori Langton
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