Beleaguered Lower Merion School District pays $10,000 to settle webcam controversy claim

Jon Campisi Aug. 25, 2011, 12:04pm

The Lower Merion School District in suburban Philadelphia has agreed to pay a student $10,000 relating to the district’s controversial laptop web camera program.

The $10,000 settlement, which was confirmed by district officials, was unanimously decided upon by the district’s board of school directors during its meeting Monday night, according to local media reports.

The name and gender of the student, who is a teenager, has not been released publicly.

“I can actually only confirm that it’s a minor,” Lower Merion School District spokesman Doug Young told the Pennsylvania Record in a brief phone interview Wednesday.

Young said there was never a lawsuit filed in this case; the settlement was agreed upon before any court action was taken.

But there were other lawsuits filed involving the controversial program.

The laptop webcam controversy dates back to early 2010, when a then-15-year-old Harriton High School student named Blake Robbins alleged that his school-issued laptop computer had snapped photos of him while he was sleeping at his Penn Valley, Pa. home.

Some images apparently showed a partially undressed Robbins in his bedroom.

It later came out that the district had installed a device in take-home laptops that, when remotely triggered, would turn on the computers’ webcams.

The district had contended that the software was not designed to spy on students; rather, it was only supposed to be activated in the event of a theft or when a computer went missing.

In October 2010, the Lower Merion School District, one of the richest in Pennsylvania, agreed to settle a federal class action lawsuit brought forth by the parents of Robbins.

That lawsuit, which was filed at the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, also named as a defendant Christopher W. McGinley, the district’s superintendent.

According to the Robbins complaint, the lawsuit was filed as a class action because the number of students who could have been affected by the laptop camera program was exponential, given the number of students who had take-home computers.

Another lawsuit that had been filed separately on behalf of Lower Merion High School student Jalil Hassan, which also alleged invasion of privacy relating to the webcams, was also settled during that time.

As reported in the Ardmore Patch, a community news website, the school board back in late 2010 had approved of a settlement totaling $610,000.

A separate settlement, for $1.2 million, was approved for the district’s insurance carrier, Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Company. The district had been embroiled in separate litigation with the insurance provider over court costs. The district wanted the carrier to pay for legal fees to defend itself in the spying controversy; Graphic Arts contended the district’s personal injury policy didn’t cover so-called spying.

As for the student lawsuits, the first settlement included $175,000 to be placed in trust for plaintiff Robbins, and $10,000 to be placed in trust for Hassan, the Patch site reported. Both students are minors.

The remaining $425,000 was designated for attorney Mark Haltzman, the lawyer who represented both plaintiffs.

Yet another lawsuit was filed against the school district in June of this year by former Harriton High School student Joshua Levin, who court records indicate now lives in Philadelphia.

In his lawsuit, which was also filed in federal court in Philadelphia, Levin alleged that he, too, was spied on by the laptop webcams. His lawsuit contained counts of invasion of privacy and alleged violations of Pennsylvania’s wiretapping law.

In early August, school district officials filed a motion in federal court asking a judge to dismiss Levin’s complaint. The 54-page motion offers a number of reasons why the Levin suit differs from the others filed earlier over the laptop program.

For one thing, the district contends that the supposed images of Levin were never seen by anyone, unlike in the Robbins case, for example.

In response to the district’s motion for dismissal, Levin filed his own countermotion days later.

The respective motions await judicial ruling.

The $10,000 settlement that was announced earlier this week helps brings to a close a chapter in the district’s history that many in the school community would like to forget.

The Lower Merion School District has been besieged by other troubles in recent times. In 2009, the district was slapped with a lawsuit over its redistricting plan. A handful of black families alleged that race was a factor in the district’s decision to bus students from South Ardmore, one of the neighborhoods served by the district, to a different high school within the district than the students previously attended, and one that was supposedly further from their homes.

A federal judge eventually ruled in favor of the school district in that case, declaring that race was not a factor in the redistricting plan, and that it could move forward as planned.

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