School District Settles Webcam Spying Case

Published May 31, 2016

Just how much is a student’s privacy rights worth?

For Blake Robbins, a student in Pennsylvania, the price is $175,000. That’s how much he received in a civil rights suit settlement after being secretly videotaped by his school.

Lower Merion, the Philadelphia-area district where Robbins attends school, settled the suit in October, agreeing to pay the student $610,000. Legal fees ate up most of the settlement amount.

Improper Eating of Candy
Lower Merion distributed 2,300 Apple laptops with remote access Web cameras and secret, remote recording ability to the district’s high school students in 2009.

After a photograph taken from his computer’s Webcam show Robbins eating candy, which school officials mistakenly identified as drugs, he was charged with “improper behavior in his home.”

Robbins’ parents filed suit last February against Harriton High School officials in Ardmore, claiming their son’s privacy rights were violated.

Took More Than 400 Photos
Robbins’ laptop program was activated, say officials, because he had previously damaged two laptops provided him by the district. Because he had not paid the insurance for the third laptop, the school argued Robbins wasn’t allowed to take it home.

Evidence revealed Robbins was photographed more than 400 times over a two-week period. Some of those pictures were of him sleeping.

The district admitted it activated 42 Webcams in the 14 months before the suit was filed in February.

The district says it is no longer deploying the tracking program.

District Now Cites Privacy Concerns
On October 12 of this year Lower Merion School District (LMSD) Board President David Ebby issued a statement after the LMSD board of directors approved the settlement.

According to Ebby’s statement, “Although we would have valued the opportunity to finally share an important, untold story in the courtroom, we recognize that in this case, a lengthy, costly trial would benefit no one. It would have been an unfair distraction for our students and staff and it would have cost taxpayers additional dollars that are better devoted to education. We also wanted to be sensitive to the welfare of the student involved in the case, given the possible ramifications of what would have been a highly publicized trial.”

‘Lawyer Is the Real Winner’
“The students’ lawyer is the real winner in this case,” said Maureen Martin, senior fellow for legal affairs at The Heartland Institute, which also publishes Infotech & Telecom News. “The Associated Press reports Blake Robbins will receive $175,000, to be placed in trust for him, and a second student $10,000, while their lawyer will recover $425,000 in legal fees.”
“School officials viciously invaded Robbins’ privacy by using the camera in the school laptop Robbins was allowed to take home, to secretly tape him in his bedroom. The District then compounded its misconduct by accusing Robbins of ingesting drugs, when in reality he was eating Mike & Ike candy. In my opinion, $175,000 is not nearly enough to compensate him for this egregious conduct.”
Prosecutors decided not to pursue a federal criminal wiretap case against the district, after the FBI investigated.

Martin says Robbins’ attorney had an easy job.

“The students’ lawyer was handed a slam-dunk case, with both the facts and the law on his clients’ side,” she explained. “Legal fees totaling $425,000 for a case in which the District never mounted a serious defense are the real outrage here,” she said.
“Fortunately for the District’s taxpayers, they won’t have to foot the bill for this settlement, because the District’s insurance carrier will pay it,” Martin said.
Sarah McIntosh, esq. ([email protected]) is a constitutional scholar writing from Lawrence, Kansas.

Internet Resources:
“Statement Regarding Settlement of Laptop Litigation,” Lower Merion School District Board President David Ebby: