Published November 17, 2014
PHILADELPHIA – A suburban Philadelphia school district, which admitted earlier this year to capturing 56,000 secret webcam photos and screenshots on school-issued laptops, has agreed to pay $610,000 in settlements.
The district faced two suits with Harriton High School student Blake Robbins, and a second student who filed suit, Jalil Hassan. Evidence revealed that Robbins was photographed 400 times in a two-week period – sometimes as he slept in his bedroom, according to his lawyer, Mark Haltzman.
The Lower Merion School District says it took the photos in an attempt to locate missing computers. A district review found that a remote tracking program was sometimes left on inadvertently for months after laptops were located.
The settlement calls for $175,000 to be placed in a trust for Robbins and $10,000 for 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," David Ebby, the school board president, 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.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.