Pa. school spy case sparks fight over money

Sen. 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 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 Web site created by, among others, a local borough mayor and councilman. The site, contains an abridged version of the concerns submitted to U.S. 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 behavior 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 authorized to turn on the cameras have been put on paid leave.

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