The FBI is reportedly investigating a Pennsylvania school district for possible federal law violations in light of a lawsuit filed by the parents of a high school student.
According to multiple media reports, the FBI is probing accusations made against the Lower Merion School District by Michael and Holly Robbins of Penn Valley, Pa. The Robbins family filed a lawsuit alleging the district spied on their son, Blake, who is a student at Harriton High School, using a Webcam included on a school-issued laptop. The Montgomery County District Attorney’s Office is looking into the accusations as well.
According to the suit, the district provided laptops to high school students as part of a technology initiative, and did not notify families that the laptops were equipped with Webcams that could be turned on remotely. The family alleged in the suit they did not learn of the capability until school officials accused Blake Robbins of “improper behavior in his home” and cited as evidence a photograph from the Webcam embedded in the laptop.
On Feb. 18, after news of the lawsuit broke, District Superintendent Christopher McGinley issued a statement explaining the feature was included on the laptops to help the district locate the machines in the event they were stolen. A day later, in a letter posted to the district’s Website, he repeated the explanation, and stressed that the feature had been turned off.
“While we understand the concerns, in every one of the fewer than 50 instances in which the tracking software was used this school year, its sole purpose was to try to track down and locate a student’s computer,” he wrote. “While certain rules for laptop use were spelled out-such as prohibitive uses on and off school property-there was no explicit notification that the laptop contained the security software. This notice should have been given and we regret that was not done.”
In a question and answer section posted online underneath the letter, the district states: “At no time did any high school administrator have the ability or actually access the security- tracking software. We believe that the administrator at Harriton [High School] has been unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked in connection with her attempts to be supportive of a student and his family. The district never did and never would use such tactics as a basis for disciplinary action.”
According to the district, 42 laptops were reported lost, stolen or missing during the 2009-10 school year, and the feature was used in each instance. A total of 18 laptops were found or recovered. The feature will not be reactivated without expressed, written notification to all students and parents, according to the district.