A Tangled Web
Lower Merion’s webcam blunder leads to debates about technology in school
by Maria Martino Evans

When Lower Merion School District officials gave 1,800 high-schoolers laptop computers to “ensure that all students had 24/7 access to school-based resources,” they didn’t anticipate the firestorm that would ensue.

First, there was the lawsuit.

In an effort to keep track of its equipment, the district monitored students at home from webcams embedded in the laptops, according to a lawsuit filed in February on behalf of Harriton High student Blake Robbins.

Last fall, the Robbins family learned about the webcams when the assistant principal reprimanded Blake for “improper behavior in his home,” based on a photograph from the webcam on his school-issued laptop. (She thought he might have been popping pills; he says he was eating candy.) It turns out that photo was one of more than 50,000 images the system snapped, including photos of students, their families and friends, and programs running on their laptop screens.

It was a story that shocked not only residents of the affluent Main Line district, but the nation. The apparent “cyber-spying” sparked heated debates, an FBI probe and a private investigation by district-hired attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr.

The investigators’ report cited many problems with Lower Merion’s system, including inconsistent policies and “overzealous” use of technology “without any apparent regard for privacy considerations.”

However, investigators found no evidence that school employees spied on students or that the webcams snapped any inappropriate images. The report concluded that Lower Merion administrators and technology staff failed to set up strict policies to protect students’ privacy, and this spring, a judge signed an injunction barring the district from using such invasive technology without written consent from students and parents.

“While I completely understand and support students’ use of sophisticated technologies, I’m baffled that the district did not adequately consider the potential risks involved. Or if they did consider the potential risks, I’m troubled that the district ultimately decided that the benefits outweighed the risks,” says Nancy R. Lawrence, Ph.D, senior researcher at 21st Century Partnership for STEM Education in Conshohocken. An educator and educational researcher for decades, Lawrence was not speaking on behalf on STEM.

“My feeling, as a parent and educational researcher, is that privacy is paramount. And even more so when dealing with children and young people,” Lawrence says. “As a researcher conducting research in schools, I can’t formally talk to or interview a child without first obtaining their assent and the consent of their parents or guardians.”  

One upside, she says, is that the Lower Merion situation has spurred thousands of necessary conversations about privacy and technology across the country.

Are Kids Safe at School?

There was also fear that someone could hack into the school’s technology system. Earlier this year, a security firm in Seattle said it took only hours to hack into a version of the laptop tracking system the district used. People worried that outsiders could have hacked into the district’s computers and watched students through the webcams—although there is no evidence that anyone did.

“I tell my students to think of technology as a tool like any other tool in education—use it to complement traditional face-to-face lessons,” says Kathleen Kennedy-Reilly, an elementary and middle school teacher and lecturer in the education department at Delaware Valley College in Doylestown. “We have to teach students how to use those tools correctly. When they’re young, we tell them don’t run with scissors. Like scissors, any technology can help you or it can hurt you.”

“Many schools’ existing policies are not keeping pace with the challenges that these new technologies present,” says Lawrence, a mother of two. “Parents must be vigilant and proactive—ask questions, demand information, insist on seeing the districts’ rules related to privacy and security.”

Kennedy-Reilly says most districts have policies and offer sessions to parents with concerns about technology. Many require parents and students to sign forms about the policies at the start of the school year.

“But it’s a learning curve,” she says. “Once policies are in place, you may have to adjust them. You have to learn from each district and each implementation of technology.”

While the decision not to pursue class-action damages in the Lower Merion incident indicates that perhaps Robbins’ case was more unique than initially thought, Lower Merion has since developed policies and procedures to prevent the same thing from happening again, according to Doug Young, director of school and community relations.

Lower Merion students and parents did sign a policy acknowledging the school could monitor the laptops’ contents and Internet usage, but the policy didn’t mention that the school could turn on the webcams if laptops were reported missing or stolen. Robbins borrowed a laptop from the school last October because the one he had been issued was damaged. A technician turned on its tracking  program and webcam after officials realized Robbins had taken the loaner computer off-campus and had not paid the $55 insurance fee required of every student.

However, the district has taken the following measures to improve its technology and privacy protocols:

•    Performed an IT audit to assist in policy development

•    Will provide training for information system staff and administrators

•    Hired a company to help develop an action plan on IT governance and policy and audit current policies and procedures

•    Will keep families informed via website, e-mail, community forums, the district’s cable channel, class meetings and school board meetings

•    Formed a “boot camp” for incoming students on Internet safety, privacy, digital media in the classroom and social media ethics

•    Expanded its Technology Advisory Council to include 50 volunteer teachers, parents, students and community members

“The district is committed to moving forward and restoring the community’s trust,” Young says. “We will not shy away from the use of technology in this process.”
As of mid June, the district’s legal fees had reached about $780,000, and possible disagreements with the district’s insurance firm, those expenditures could end up costing taxpayers.

Beyond Lower Merion

Unlike the wealthy Lower Merion School District, most districts do not issue laptops for home use, Kennedy-Reilly says. “Most common are carts of laptops housed at school.” That’s the case in Central Bucks School District, one of the largest in the state.

“I knew there was no way we were doing anything like [putting webcams on computers and not telling people they were turned on],” says school board member Chris Asplen. “We don’t even let the laptops go home; they are a huge taxpayer investment.”

Asplen also says the district has guidelines that outline the extent to which information can be downloaded or stored on school computers and the proper use of the Internet.

“One thing to always remember is that the school must act in loco parentis, in place of the parent,” he explains. “We have not only the right, but the responsibility, to make sure our children are safe in our care. And we all recognize the potential danger of the Internet.”

Some parents will argue that the expense and risk of a school district giving out laptops is not worth the benefit. “If a computer is needed, the parents should be responsible for providing them,” says Ken Lynch, a father of two and teacher assistant in Pennridge School District. “Or, if they cannot, the school needs to have them readily available [on campus] or, if that isn’t possible, educators need to diminish their reliance on the Internet.”

He also questioned the need for anti-theft cameras in the first place. “I understand the need to account for valuable property, however, when these items are checked out, aren’t they signed for? Or, if they’re stolen by someone else, a snapshot is useless. Just because you can see the person doesn’t mean you know who they are.”

What can districts do to keep technology under control? When it comes to computers and the Internet, experts agree: Informed consent from students and parents and proper training for users and staff are essential, as is a less-intrusive tracking device, such as GPS.

As for Lower Merion, “we will learn from our mistakes and grow from this experience,” says Young. “We take great pride in our leadership in the use of technology in education and recognize that being on the cutting edge comes with certain challenges and lessons.

“Our goal is to emerge as the model district when it comes to ensuring the privacy and security of our community members.”

For updates on the Lower Merion case, a number of resources are available in the “laptop updates” tab at LMSD.org  

Maria Martino Evans is a writer and PR professional in Bucks County.

Parental Guidance

Our experts offer some advice to parents:

• Stay informed on technology, learning and embracing each one, even if you choose not to use it.

• Maintain close and constant contact with teachers and counselors so you     know what is going on in school, says Central Bucks’ board member Chris Asplen.

• Talk to other parents–at sporting events and other activities, says Del Val’s Kathleen Kennedy-Reilly, a mother of four. Be aware of and open to new websites or technology you hear about.

• Tap into students as resources. Older kids, in particular, have a lot to share.