Lower Merion School District Avoids Criminal Charges, Settles with Students
Through its One-to-One Program, the Lower Merion School District provides students with various technologies and gives laptops to approximately 2,300 students at the two high schools in the district. According to the district, the goal of this program is to ensure that each student has digital access and the ability to learn necessary digital literacy skills. Earlier this year, however, one student alleged that the district improperly used webcams and tracking software that were installed on the computers.
According to a CBS report, in November 2009, the principal of one of the district’s high schools told one student that the school had evidence of the student engaging in “improper behavior” at home. A webcam photo from a computer provided to the student by the school was the apparent source of the evidence.
As a result, the student and his parents filed a federal lawsuit against the district, alleging that the school illegally photographed and videotaped its students. The lawsuit also prompted the FBI to begin investigating the school for federal criminal charges.
In February, the district deactivated the tracking software that it had installed on the laptops. According to a report in The Main Line Times, investigators hired by the district found nearly 60,000 images that were taken when the TheftTrack software was in use from fall 2008 to February 2010, despite claims from the district that the software was only used in limited circumstances.
The Main Line report further notes that though the software was supposed to have limited purposes, neither the students nor the parents participating in the program were informed of its use or even the availability the district had to use it. A CBS report notes that the district had the ability to remotely activate webcams on the laptops, but that they only did so when the computers were reported stolen or missing. A CNN report notes that only 42 laptops were reported missing or stolen during the 2009-2010 school year.
The tracking system was also used on 12 computers issued to teachers. Other laptops had “mistaken or unknown activations,” according to Main Line. The TheftTrack program, once activated, would take screenshot pictures every 15 minutes until it was shut down.
The district faced allegations of violating the federal Video Voyeurism Act, which makes it unlawful for a person to “capture an image of a private area of an individual without their consent, and knowingly does so under circumstances in which the individual has a reasonable expectation of privacy.” Penalties for violating this act include a fine and up to one year in prison. Federal prosecutors, however, announced in August that they would not seek criminal charges against officials of the district or school, citing a lack of criminal intent.
Recently, the student and his parents, along with another student that joined the federal lawsuit, settled with the district for $175,000 for the first student and $10,000 for the second student, along with attorney fees. It is unclear whether the settlement included a permanent prohibition against webcams being installed on school laptops, although the Lower Merion school district has apparently changed its policies and procedures for the laptop distribution program, which continues.