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

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

April 18, 2010 06:05 AM ET

Computerworld - 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."

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