It all started when a 16-year-old was called into the assistant principal’s office for eating Mike and Ikes. Now, the Lower Merion School District in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia is facing a federal class-action lawsuit, an FBI investigation, and a grand jury subpoena over allegations that they remotely accessed the cameras on school-supplied laptop computers to spy on students.
In a lawsuit filed on Tuesday, Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins said that Assistant Principal Lindy Matsko accused him “improper” behavior in his home, which she showed him pictures of. According to Robbins, the pictures were of him holding what the school believed to be illicit drugs he was dealing, and what he maintains were capsule-shaped Mike and Ike candies.
The Robbins family says that when they objected to the invasion of their privacy, the school claimed the right to access the Macbooks “24/7.” That policy was never disclosed to students or parents. Michael and Holly Robbins have requested a restraining order preventing the school from using the webcams.
According to the school district, their policy was to remotely access the cameras only if computers were reported lost or stolen, and only two employees are authorized to use the feature. Matsko isn’t one of them. District spokesman Doug Young said that the lawsuit prevented him from saying if Robbins’ computer was reported lost or stolen, but suggested that reporters “[i]nfer what you want” from his insistence that the district has never violated its policy on access. Young also declined to comment on whether the authorized users, both from the IT Department, were allowed to share the images they retrieved with Matsko.
In a letter to parents on Friday, Superintendent Christopher McGinley said that the district accessed the cameras on student computers 42 times in 14 months, all in cases of missing computers. Young says that 28 of the 42 missing computers were recovered. The district says they disabled the function on Thursday.
McGinley also defended Matsko in a statement on Friday.
“At no time did any high school administrator have the ability or actually access the security-tracking software. We believe that the administrator at Harriton has been unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked in connection with her attempts to be supportive of a student and his family. The district never did and never would use such tactics as a basis for disciplinary action.”
A source described as “a lawyer who had been briefed about the matter” told the Philadelphia Inquirer that a grand jury subpoena requesting “a broad range of records related to the so-called webcams and the security system that district officials used to activate them” was delivered to the school district on Friday. An official “who spoke on condition of anonymity because the official was not authorized to discuss the investigation” told the AP that the FBI is looking into possible violations of federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws.
Witold Walczak, the legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, which is not involved in the lawsuit, told the Associated Press that his concerns go past privacy. “This is an age where kids explore their sexuality, so there’s a lot of that going on in the room. This is fodder for child porn.”