Pa. school district snapped 'thousands' of student images, claims lawyer

District staffers called the photos taken by laptop software a 'little soap opera'

The suburban Philadelphia school district accused of spying on students using school-issued laptops snapped thousands of images of teenagers in their homes, including shots of a boy asleep in his bed, documents filed in a lawsuit claimed Thursday.

In a motion filed April 15 by Michael and Holly Robbins, and their teenage son Blake, the family's attorney said Lower Merion School District personnel remotely activated Blake's MacBook over 400 times in a 15-day stretch last fall, taking photos using the notebook's camera and snapping images of the computer's screen.

"There were numerous webcam pictures of Blake and other members of his family, including pictures of Blake partially undressed and of Blake sleeping," alleged the motion. Screenshots of Blake's conversations with friends using instant messaging were also taken, said his lawyer.

The motion claimed that the LANRev software Lower Merion used to track stolen, lost or missing MacBooks took "thousands of webcam and screen shots ... of numerous other students in their homes, many of which never reported their laptops lost or missing." Among the photographs were some of a student who had a name similar to another student's who had reported a missing notebook.

Lower Merion, of Ardmore, Pa., was first sued by the Robbins family in mid-February, when they alleged that the district spied on Blake Robbins using his laptop. Later, Robbins said, a Harriton High School assistant principal accused him of selling drugs and taking pills, and used a snapshot taken by the computer as evidence. Robbins claimed the pictures showed him eating candy.

The motion filed on Thursday asked U.S. District Court Judge Jan DuBois to grant the Robbins' attorney access to the home of Carol Cafiero, information systems coordinator for the district, to seize any computers found in her home. Cafiero is one of two district employees who were put on paid administrative leave by Lower Merion in late February pending the ongoing investigation. According to her attorney, Cafiero only triggered the remote monitoring feature on school officials' orders.

Cafiero's computers' hard drives will be imaged, and the machines returned to her within 48 hours, the motion said. "There is reason to believe that evidence may be found on her personal home computer of the downloading of the pictures obtained from the LANRev 'peeping tom' technology," the Robbins' attorney argued.

The motion noted that Cafiero cited her right under the Fifth Amendment to not answer questions during a recent deposition, which she had earlier contested. "Unlike any of the witnesses asked to testify, [Cafiero] invokes the Fifth Amendment to every question asked of her, including a question asked as to whether she had ever downloading [sic] pictures to her personal computer, including pictures of students who were naked while in their home."

Watching the high school students at home via their computers' cameras was like "a little [Lower Merion School District] soap opera," a staffer said in an e-mail to Cafiero obtained by Robbins' lawyer during discovery.

"I know, I love it!" Cafiero said in a reply, the motion asserted.

In a statement Friday, David Ebby, the president of the Lower Merion school board, countered the Robbins' newest allegations. "A Motion filed yesterday by the plaintiffs ostensibly was against Carol Cafiero, but instead appears to be a vehicle to attack the District," said Ebby. "We do not feel it is appropriate for anyone other than the investigators to dictate the timing of the investigation and the release of complete findings." The district has hired a Philadelphia law firm to oversee the investigation.

But Ebby conceded that the school-issued laptops had taken a "substantial number of webcam photos," and said it had proposed to Judge DuBois that families of students who appear in those photographs be notified and given the chance to view the images.

Ebby also obliquely addressed the motion's charge that Cafiero or others used the district's technology to spy on students. "While we deeply regret the mistakes and misguided actions that have led us to this situation, at this late stage of the investigation we are not aware of any evidence that District employees used any LANRev webcam photographs or screenshots for such inappropriate purposes," said Ebby.

Earlier last week, DuBois ordered that only lawyers for the school district would have access to camera images and screenshots of students besides those taken of Blake Robbins and his sister Paige, who also attends Harriton High School. DuBois' order also said that the district would wrap up its investigation by May 4.

"We are committed to disclosing fully what happened, correcting our mistakes, and making sure that they do not happen again," said Ebby in the April 16 statement.

Neither the school district or Cafiero's attorney immediately replied to requests made Saturday seeking comment.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

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