PHILADELPHIA – Two information-technology workers at a suburban Philadelphia school district that secretly activated webcams on students' school-issued laptops are on paid leave amid an FBI wiretap investigation.
Lower Merion School District officials have said the webcams were only activated to locate missing laptops, and not for any rogue purpose.
"Placing them on administrative leave with pay is not a reflection of any wrongdoing on their part. It is a standard, prudent step in an investigation such as this one," the district said in a statement Friday, confirming a Philadelphia Inquirer report.
Technician Michael Perbix and systems coordinator Carol Cafiero went on leave two weeks ago, after a student's lawsuit revealed the district practice of taking webcam photos and screen shots when laptops were reported lost or stolen.
The district remotely activated 42 webcams in the last 14 months, successfully locating 18 of the computers. School officials have declined to describe the resulting photographs, or say if any were taken inside student homes. The district has halted the practice amid the lawsuit and resulting state and federal criminal probes.
In the civil suit, Harriton High School student Blake Robbins accuses school officials of invading his privacy by photographing him in his bedroom without permission. A vice principal later approached him, he said, and warned that school officials — based on webcam photos — suspected him of selling drugs.
Robbins, 15, denies the drug allegation. He claims Vice Principal Lindy Matsko mistook Mike & Ike candies for illicit pills.
Lower Merion, a wealthy district on Philadelphia's Main Line, spent $21,600 per student in 2008-2009, the most in the Philadelphia region and nearly twice the $11,426 spent on Philadelphia children. The district issues the $1,000 Macintosh laptops to each of the 2,300 students at two high schools.
Robbins' lawyer hopes to win class-action certification, but nearly 500 district parents have signed on to fight such a move. They are angry about the webcam fiasco, but also concerned about the financial impact of a large class-action settlement.
"It's hard to believe that this happened, especially in this school district, which is populated probably by a higher proportion of lawyers than any school district in the country. It's pretty mind-boggling," said lawyer Larry Silver of Narberth, an organizer of the anti-lawsuit group whose daughter attends Harriton.
Losing a few laptops no longer seems like a big problem, he said.
"They could have thrown them all out the window and still have saved a lot of money, compared to defending this lawsuit and investigations being done by the U.S. attorney's office and others," Silver said. "But hindsight is 20-20."
Perbix, who earns $86,000 as a technician, and Cafiero, who makes about $105,000, were the only two people authorized to remotely activate the webcams, their lawyers said. They did so only at the direction of administrators, they said.
Once activated, the LANrev software program took webcam photographs of the user and screen shots every 15 minutes the computer was in use. Privacy experts say there are far less intrusive ways to track lost laptops.
The district also set up a secure web-based program that enabled Lower Merion police to access the LANrev information if a computer was thought to be stolen, according to Cafiero's lawyer, Charles Mandracchia.
He is unaware of any school policies that defined who else could view or discuss the information collected, as Matsko is alleged to have done.
The technology staff, the lawyers said, was not responsible for instituting privacy safeguards. Yet their clients are now off the job, and facing questioning by police and the FBI.
"The people that should have been trained in the privacy (issues) should have been in the administration, not necessarily my person, whose only job was to turn it on," Mandracchia said.
Both Matsko and Robbins read statements to reporters last month defending their positions, but neither took questions.
An infuriated Matsko said she never monitored students through the webcams or authorized anyone else to do so. She stopped short, though, of addressing whether she saw any webcam photos or spoke to Robbins about suspected drug use.
"Ms. Matsko does not deny that she saw a webcam picture and screen shot of me in my home," Robbins said outside his family's sprawling Penn Valley home. "She only denies that she is the one who activated the webcam."