US school spy case sparks fight over money

Senator Arlen Specter to hold hearing March 29 on laptop Web cam snooping

Parents representing about a quarter of the high school students in the suburban Philadelphia school district accused of spying on teenagers using their laptops' cameras said they're "outraged" by a lawsuit seeking monetary damages.

Meanwhile, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) has scheduled a hearing on March 29 by the Judiciary subcommittee on crime and drugs, which he chairs, on the use of student-issued computers to allegedly spy on students in their homes.

"We seek a resolution of the webcam issue that is in the best interests of our children and the Lower Merion School District, one that does not involve the class-action lawsuit," six parents said in a motion filed in federal court yesterday seeking permission to intervene in the case.

The parents said they fear that any monetary damages awarded to Blake Robbins, who sued the school district last month, would cause cuts to educational programs.

Parents representing between 500 and 600 students in the district have signed an online petition supporting the move by registering at a website created by, among others, a local borough mayor and councilman. The site, contains an abridged version of the concerns submitted to US District Court Judge Jan DuBois.

Last month, Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa., on behalf of their son Blake, sued Lower Merion of Ardmore, Pa., accusing it of spying on students and students' families using the iSight camera in the MacBook laptops issued to each high school student. They have asked for unspecified compensatory and punitive damages.

According to the original complaint, Blake Robbins was accused by a Harriton High School assistant principal of "improper behaviour in his home" and shown a photograph taken by his laptop as evidence. Robbins has said he was accused by the assistant principal of selling drugs and taking pills, but he claimed the pictures taken by his computer's camera showed him eating candy. The district has acknowledged using the cameras, but said they were turned on only when a laptop was reported lost or stolen. The assistant principal has denied any wrongdoing.

Since then, DuBois has issued a consent order barring the district from activating the cameras, and the two district employees authorised to turn on the cameras have been put on paid leave .

The parents involved with objected to the Robbins' lawsuit, saying that the family doesn't represent the majority of possible claimants. "We seek an end to the litigation, especially the class action for damages, to reduce monetary costs to the district," they said on the site. "The motion to intervene will give the parents a voice in opposing class certification for damages."

Instead, the parents want DuBois to appoint an independent public advocate who would lead an investigation, report findings and make recommendations that could include alternate technologies for tracking down lost or stolen laptops. They have also demanded that the school district be permanently barred from remotely activating the MacBooks' cameras to locate missing machines.

Those who opposed the Robbins' demand for money said they had no interest in squeezing the district, and noted that they were represented by attorneys working pro bono who have children at the district's high schools. "Interveners and their many supporters are not interested in receiving money damages at the expense of educational programs in their schools," the motion said.

But any violations of the law on the part of school district employees, if that is found to be the case, should to be punished. "Interveners have no interest in sweeping [Lower Merion School District] wrongdoing under the rug," the motion stated. "They are as interested in a full accounting as are all other parents, determining the extent of that wrongdoing, establishing the appropriate consequences, and securing appropriate relief to ensure it does not reoccur."

The parents also claimed that the Robbins family had not paid the $55 annual insurance on the laptop issued to Blake Robbins; according to Lower Merion's policy, uninsured laptops are not to be taken off school campus.

Sen. Specter will hold the hearing in Philadelphia on March 29, but a list of prospective witnesses won't be released until early next week, his office confirmed today. Specter's goal, said a spokeswoman, is "not to find out what did or did not happen," but will instead be focused on whether federal laws have kept up with technological changes. "The issue is one of surreptitious eavesdropping," Specter told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Wednesday. "Unbeknownst to people, their movements and activities were under surveillance."

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