PHILADELPHIA – A Philadelphia-area school district agreed Monday to pay $610,000 to settle two lawsuits over secret photos taken on school-issued laptops.
The Lower Merion School District admitted it captured thousands of webcam photographs and screen shots from student laptops in a misguided effort to locate missing computers.
Harriton High School student Blake Robbins, then 15, charged in an explosive civil-rights lawsuit filed in February that the district used its remote tracking technology to spy on him inside his home. Later evidence unearthed in the case showed that he was photographed 400 times in a two-week period, sometimes as he slept in his bedroom, according to his lawyer, Mark Haltzman.
The settlement calls for $175,000 to be placed in a trust for Robbins and $10,000 for a second student who filed suit, Jalil Hassan. Their lawyer, Mark Haltzman, will get $425,000 for his work on the case.
The FBI investigated whether the district broke any criminal wiretap laws, but prosecutors declined to bring any charges.
"Although we would have valued the opportunity to finally share an important, untold story in the courtroom, we recognize that in this case, a lengthy, costly trial would benefit no one," school board President David Ebby said in a statement late Monday. "It would have been an unfair distraction for our students and staff and it would have cost taxpayers additional dollars that are better devoted to education."
The district's insurer has agreed to pay $1.2 million toward legal and settlement costs. The carrier, Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Company, had questioned in a lawsuit whether costs associated with the webcam suit would be covered under the district's policy.
Neither Haltzman nor the Robbins family returned calls for comment Monday.
Hassan has since graduated from Lower Merion High School, and a phone number for him could not immediately be determined.
The district issues Apple laptops to all 2,300 students at its two high schools.
The district's review found that its technology staff captured at least 56,000 images through the remote tracking program, which was sometimes left on inadvertently for months after laptops were located.
Robbins said he had never reported his computer missing, and did not know why the program was activated on his laptop.
District officials said he had damaged or destroyed two other school laptops, and failed to pay the required $55 insurance fee on the one he had. He was therefore not authorized to bring it home, a technology official said in court papers.
According to his suit, Robbins learned of the practice when a Harriton vice principal cited a laptop photo in telling him that the school thought he was engaging in improper behavior. Robbins told reporters the school had mistaken candy he was seen eating for drugs.
The district is no longer using the tracking program.