School Spying Case is Settled (And Yet, This is Just the Beginning…)

In case you were wondering whatever happened in that school district outside of Philly where 2,300 students were issued laptops that the administration then used to spy on the students in their homes, here’s the denouement, as reported on the Law & Disorder website:

The school district accused of spying on students at home via laptop webcam has agreed to settle two student lawsuits for a total of $610,000. The Lower Merion School District board of directors released a statement Tuesday morning, saying that it decided to settle in order to move on and “protect the interests of our taxpayers,” even if that meant not being able to share its own side of the story.

The webcam issue first came to light in February whenhigh school student Blake J. Robbins was disciplined by his assistant principal for engaging in “improper behavior” while at home—the evidence for which was apparently a photograph from the built-in webcam on his school-issued laptop. Once the Robbins family filed its class-action lawsuit against the district, the FBI began investigating the case as well to see whether the school had broken any federal wiretap laws.

Following a court order to preserve the webcam images from the district’s 2,300 student-issued laptops, the Robbins’ updated their claims, saying that the school took more than 400 photos of Blake in his room (some while he was “partially undressed”). Additionally, they said the school took “thousands” more pictures of other students in their homes, or in some case screenshots of private IM conversations.

And guess what else? The onlookers called the students’ lives a “soap opera” that they LOVED WATCHING.

Incredible. But that’s the end of this particular case. Why do I have the feeling it won’t be the last? Could it because of things like THIS STORY:  Two districts in Texas are using RFID tags — the same technology used to track cattle  — to track students? Supposedly this will help with “security.”

Whose? — Lenore

37 Responses

  1. Wow. Settling for $610K?! These people should be charged as pedophiles. What other type of person would spy into other people’s children’s bedrooms without the kids knowing? And say the “loved watching”. No wonder they wanted to settle quickly. Because they DON’T have a side to their story. Even if they did, it’s still over shadowed by being peeping toms in childrens’ rooms. I hope they get bit for more than the money. Utterly disgraceful. I say make an example out of them.

  2. RFID? I think I saw that on an episode of Num3ers. They used the RFID tags to track down someone using a Columbine style attack to cover up a pre-meditated murder. And you know how often movie and TV plots occur in real life.

  3. Did anyone ever tell what the original kid’s “improper behavior” was? I hate dangling story threads.

  4. Andy the kid was eating Mike and Ike candies at his desk at home. The school administrators were secretly watching him (and all other students) through the cameras and assumed they were illegal pills and kicked him out of school for drug use, using a photo they took of him half undressed in the privacy of his bedroom at home as evidence.

  5. This is in a district near my own, and I know people with kids in the Lower Merion schools. Already the families in the area are saying the kid and his family are good-for-nothing losers. That there were “lots of kids” who could have joined the lawsuit but that the social pressures were against it. I mean, you wouldn’t want to hurt the school district would you? They totally didn’t mean to spy on y’all. Keep your mouth shut for the good of the community.

    The local scuttlebutt is that the kid is a “known” drug dealer. What started this all off was when the administration called him in for questioning about his alleged dealing after seeing something “suspicious” on the video they never should have had in the first place. The video really shows him eating candy, but it COULD have been drugs, because he is a loser (don’tcha know?).

    What nobody in the town seems to cotton to is that the school could have been looking at any of their kids. Probably were. How happy would they have been if the tapes showed their child having sex? Oh, wait. Upper class kids from good families in wealthy communities don’t do that. Only poor kids.

    Sorry, this whole thing touches a sore spot with me.

  6. Getting paranoid about RFID tags is unnecessary. RFID tags aren’t just for cattle; they’re used for everything from grocery-store inventory to auto-toll machines to car keys. They’re routinely used for employee ID badges, library cards, etc.

    I just returned from a trip to Boston where the subway passes have embedded RFID chips; you just wave the card in front of a reader and it automatically deducts the fare from your account. When I want to unlock my Prius I just touch the door handle; it detects the RFID chip in the car key in my pocket and unlocks the door automatically.

    The point is that RFID tags are inherently short-range, often just a few inches (at most a few feet). That might help find a student if they’re in the wrong classroom, certainly could be used for library checkouts, might help keep outsiders from getting in the front door, but couldn’t track students outside of school.

  7. Read the rest. The lawyer got $475,000 of the settlement and the kids got what was left. THAT is child abuse.

  8. Re: Twitter post about mini TV ads in grocery stores.

    Simple solution: Punch holes in the monitors with your car keys. When enough are destroyed, the store will get the picture.

    Or, yank it off the display and throw behind all the boxes. Can always claim you were reaching for a product box and the monitor fell off.

    Or yeah, can sign a will-be-ignored petition.

  9. Anyone who uses an EasyPass device is using the RFID technology. What information are they going to get from a school ID? The kids name? How much money they have left on their lunch account? What bothers me is the fact that they feel the need to be tracking the kids in the school in the first place. Are they so dangerous that this is needed? I don’t think so. We just had a presentation of this by our security department and Columbine was the excuse for spending the money for it. The “you can’t be too careful” train of thought. That’s what I have a problem with.

  10. And guess what else? The onlookers called the students’ lives a “soap opera” that they LOVED WATCHING.

    I wonder if these school board members would like it if the rest of us watched there lives as a “soap opera” that we love to watch.

  11. Don’t think RFID tags can be scary? Read that “Little Brother” book by Cory Doctorow. It’s like this laptop story was ripped from that pages of that too!

  12. “Getting paranoid about RFID tags is unnecessary.”

    Wow, someone with a weird username we’ve never seen here comes and pastes something out of the RFID tag manufacturer’s sales pamphlet propaganda celebrating the advantages of being tagged like cattle, or if you prefer, numbered like gypsies in a concentration camp.

    I’m sure he is a regular reader and just decided to post his first comment.

  13. Robin made a good point. You always hear so much about how strapped the schools are for cash, how they face budget shortfalls, and yet they’re spending our tax money on shit like that? It makes an electronic sign trumpeting the good deeds of their students seem like a wise investment (a district near me recently purchased one with a grant they won for doing said good deeds. Not to minimize what those kids accomplished, but it burns me that they can buy something like that when there are schools less than 10 miles away from them that could have used the money for books and things like that.).

  14. It’s easy to settle a lawsuit with money if it’s not your own money that you’re spending. I hope the other parents in the school protest against this ridiculous waste of money.

    It would’ve been a lot cheaper to put those creeps in jail.

  15. @Ben, I just felt sick reading your comment. It scares me that people involved are not outraged.

  16. Liberty – the funniest thing about the meeting was that they kept saying it wasn’t going to cost us anything, they had gotten a grant for it. Well, yes, my local taxes won’t go up, but what about my state or federal taxes to cover all these stupid grants?

  17. @anonymousmagic, The parents are outraged…at the kid and his parents for bringing the lawsuit. Sure, the district’s insurance will pay for it, and some 1.2 million in court costs to boot, put the parents I know seem to be furious that the school should have to pay, because of the *type* of family caught up in it. They aren’t “good people.”

    @ Cynthia, I know, right? The whole thing is just disgusting. I have to believe that not all parents in the district feel this way, just the ones I know, and the ones they know whose gossip I get to hear.

  18. I would have thought the School Board should have the kid’s custody in order to punish him for something he did at home…
    I know in my school I could be punished for “improper behaviour” (such as smoking, or making rude gestures) even out of school grounds, but only as long as I was wearing my uniform. Otherwise, my parents were the ones entitled to discipline their children. I must be even more old-fashioned than I thought…

  19. Creepy. Kind of reminds me of Little Brother by Cory Doctorow. A glance into our future…. *sigh*

  20. As stated above, the lawyer gets $475K of that, one student gets $175K and the other student only $10K. Ultimately the taxpayers, not the school, will pay for this.

    But at least the school administrators were all fired, right? RIGHT?!

    Radley Balko of The Agitator said it best on this one:

    So public school officials get caught illegally spy on students. But no one gets fired. And none of the offending parties will be fined. Instead, a municipal insurer (which will ultimately affect taxpayers) will pay a decent settlement to one student, a small settlement to another, and a small fortune to their lawyer.

  21. I’m I the only one who thinks that this screams “child pornography”? Can we hit these guys with that charge as well as illegal wiretapping?

  22. Quoting from the school board president’s PR release: “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.”

    What alternative universe is they idiot from? The gross invasion of privacy was brought to the school’s attention, and they stonewalled.

    There should have been mass firings of anyone who was aware of this fiasco who didn’t immediately blow the whistle on it.

  23. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Scott. And thank you for addressing my point with rebuttals and adult argument.

  24. Folks:

    Take a deep breath and calm down!

    I don’t live in the Lower Merion school district, but I DO live only about 1/4 mile from its border. I worry a lot about privacy rights and I think that what the school district was doing with the laptop cameras was deeply wrong. But I am shocked and disappointed by some of the comments I see here.

    > “These people should be charged as pedophiles”
    No they shouldn’t! They set up an inappropriate system to track laptops that were missing, and they misused this system. Then they misinformed people about it. But there are NO indications anywhere that anyone was ATTEMPTING to capture pictures of students undressing. No wonder so many parents see pedophiles on every street corner if you stretch the word beyond its definition!

    > “How happy would they have been if the tapes showed their child having sex?”
    And how think what terrible things might happen if a kid rode on the subway alone! Seriously: complain about REAL things that actually happened, not about what you FEAR might happen but which actually did not.

    > “The lawyer got $475,000 of the settlement and the kids got what was left. THAT is child abuse.”
    Actually, they sued for (1) their lawyer’s costs and fees, (2) some additional money. The fact that (1) is more than twice as big as (2) is overpriced lawyers, not child abuse. Child abuse is when someone beats a child. Don’t diminish it by misusing the term this way.

    > “It’s easy to settle a lawsuit with money if it’s not your own money that you’re spending.”
    The school’s insurance company agreed to the settlement and made the payment. This doesn’t come directly from the school budget. (Of course, their insurance rates will probably go up.)

    > “It would’ve been a lot cheaper to put those creeps in jail.”
    It might not be, given the price of jails these days! But seriously, the FBI opened an investigation to see if a crime had been committed. They closed it with no prosecutions, concluding that civil rights had been violated, but not intentionally or with malice.

    > “this screams “child pornography”? Can we hit these guys with that charge as well as illegal wiretapping?”
    We shouldn’t, because no one here was attempting to engage in child pornography. Stop fear-mongering. Illegal wiretapping sounds much more appropriate, except that as far as I know it’s illegal to capture audio but NOT illegal to capture or pictures. The law doesn’t always make sense.

    > “The gross invasion of privacy was brought to the school’s attention, and they stonewalled. There should have been mass firings of anyone who was aware of this fiasco who didn’t immediately blow the whistle on it.”
    Yes! I agree completely. I think THAT is the biggest problem here. The spying itself — once it came to light, it was stopped and everyone (including the courts) agreed it was wrong. And it is plausible that the it was caused by abject incompetence and phenomenally bad judgment rather than actual malice. But as for the attempt to cover it up, that should lead to firings.

  25. The big problem with RFID tags in schools is that they allow administrators to determine which kids talk to or hang out with other kids, by tracking their locations. This is a Bad Thing, especially if the kids in question aren’t part of the “in crowd”, are perceived as gay, etc.

    But wait, you say: what if the administrators at Columbine had identified the “trenchcoat mafia” and broken them up? How many lives would that have saved? The answer to that one is easy: stick both your hands in your pockets and count how many fingers you’re holding up. The “trenchcoat mafia” was a group of kids who had absolutely nothing to do with the shootings. Most of them had already graduated the year before the shootings. Only one of them even knew either Harris or Klebold. The only thing they had in common with them was their choice of attire. The form of “reasoning” that led people to believe that there was any connection is properly known as “sympathetic magic”; the notion that common superficialities of form represent deep connections.

  26. Wow, there’s no way to know what kids are hanging out together without fancy electronic tags? And knowing which kids are friends is a Bad Thing? Why?

  27. Setting up cameras to film other people’s children in their bedroom is wrong wrong wrong, and yes the school administrators that did this should be all charged with procurement and production of child pornography because that is exactly what was going on. Some of the kids were not fully clothed. Any other stranger setting up a camera in a child’s bedroom in this way would definitely be charged, and the perverts at this school should be no exception. It is an outrage that they are not in jail awaiting trial right now.

  28. Sorry, “Michael Chermside”–Calm down? Behind the closed door of my middle-school bedroom I was NEVER clothed (What on earth does ‘partially undressed’ even mean?’). I have discussed this with my classmates at reunions over the decades. An awful lot of us were preparing (by ourselves) for future careers in hard-core porn, not soap operas. It was a fragile time for me. I was already contemplating ending my life early. No telling what I might have done if I had felt exposed. This betrayal of privacy is revolting and inherently dangerous.

  29. Thank you Michael Chermside for the great comments you make above, especially regarding the fear-mongering that we are engaging in even on this site. We are taking a little news snippet and casting our worst fears upon it and (child abusers! child pornographers!) without knowing all the facts or “taking a deep breath” as MC says. JUST the kind of thing we free-range parents accuse others of doing. Come on. Let’s not play into this kind of thing.

  30. I feel like my comments have been misrepresented in Michael Chermside’s response. The fault is mine, no doubt, but for the record:

    I was not intimating that the district was engaged in any way with pornography. Nor did I ever suggest that employees of the district be charged with child pornography, procurement, or anything else. My purpose in raising the spectre of HS kids having sex was to reinforce my own critique of parents in the district that NONE of them seem to give two craps that members of the school administration was collecting images ILLEGALLY via web-cam precisely because it was NOT their child caught on film. The child who brought this to public attention has been characterized as “a bad seed” so he apparently deserves whatever violations are perpetrated against his privacy.

    On the other hand, if less than savory images of some of the “good kids” had come out – whether they were engaging in sex, drinking, using drugs, or plagiarizing – parents would have been UP IN ARMS because *their* kids’ rights had been violated. But they do not seem to care about *everybody’s* rights equally. That’s what irritates me.

    The notion that these admins were engaging in child porn and should be arrested for that is a ridiculous over-reaction. The notion that they should lose their jobs for breaking privacy laws is not.

  31. Ben:

    “parents would have been UP IN ARMS because *their* kids’ rights had been violated. But they do not seem to care about *everybody’s* rights equally. That’s what irritates me.”

    But Ben, haven’t you heard? If you haven’t done anything wrong, then you have nothing to hide!

  32. Regarding “the fear-mongering that we are engaging in even on this site”: “He was photographed 400 times in a two-week period.” How on earth can anyone justify 400 images of an adolescent boy in the privacy of his own bedroom while trying to locate a stolen computer that he had not stolen. And how many images were taken through all students’ computers? “at least 56,000” AT LEAST? Fifty-six thousand! Abhorrent!

    If I had done the same thing with my own child, CPS would have removed her from our home. If any of the images showed her “partially undressed” I would be doing time.

  33. Brad:

    Natch!

  34. @Lenore- You said “In case you were wondering whatever happened…” as though you had made a previous post about this- but I didn’t see a link to the post? Or were you just referring to a well known story I missed cause I avoid the news?

    Regarding this RFID tag disagreement-
    It’s scary to think about having a locator beacon thingee on you that you either 1) haven’t been informed is there or 2) have not explicitly agreed to
    Regardless of the relative harmlessness of such a device, without knowledge or consent it’s still an invasion of privacy, though there is little enough of that left in the world, so I don’t have much expectation that anyone would respect such a boundary.

    As to the story about schools spying on kids through laptops- and then trying to excersize some kind of moral authority over a kid who was at HOME (for almost certainly doing what every teenage boy does with 50% of his time) is CREEEEEEEPYYYYYYY beyond words.

    I think the word”Orwellian” could not have found a better home.

    *scrubs hands repeatedly to try and get the ick off*

  35. […] This story makes me think that as absurd as some of the things in this book sound, it is the little steps that get us there. Punishing children for things they do at home and spying on them using computers issued to them without telling them or their parents about it…yikes. Read the article. It’s interesting and disturbing. […]

  36. […] U.S. school district issued laptops to students, then used the built-in webcams to spy on students. How does an administrator even begin to think that could be […]

  37. It’s a shame when hard working tax payers have to end up paying for such stupidity by the school district. On the other hand, the beneficiaries of the settlement made out like bandits.

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