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Originally published February 20, 2010 at 2:06 PM | Page modified February 20, 2010 at 4:21 PM

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Webcam accusations unfair, Philadelphia school district says

A suburban Philadelphia school district accused of secretly switching on laptop-computer webcams inside students' homes says it never used webcam images to monitor or discipline students and thinks one of its administrators has been "unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked."

The Associated Press

PHILADELPHIA — A suburban Philadelphia school district accused of secretly switching on laptop-computer webcams inside students' homes says it never used webcam images to monitor or discipline students and thinks one of its administrators has been "unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked."

The Lower Merion School District, in response to a lawsuit filed by a student's family, has acknowledged that webcams were remotely activated 42 times in the past 14 months, but only to find missing, lost or stolen laptops, which the district noted would include "a loaner computer that, against regulations, might be taken off campus."

"Despite some reports to the contrary, be assured that the security-tracking software has been completely disabled," Superintendent Christopher McGinley said on the district's Web site late Friday.

Harriton High School student Blake Robbins and his parents, Michael and Holly Robbins, filed a federal civil-rights lawsuit Tuesday against the district, its board of directors and McGinley. They accused the school of turning on the webcam in his computer while it was inside their Penn Valley home, which they allege violated wiretap laws and his right to privacy.

The suit, which seeks class-action status, alleges that Harriton vice principal Lindy Matsko on Nov. 11 cited a laptop photo in telling Blake that the school thought he was engaging in improper behavior. He and his family have said an official mistook a piece of candy for a pill and thought he was selling drugs.

Neither the family nor their attorney, Mark Haltzman, returned calls last week. Matsko has not commented.

"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 statement on the Lower Merion School District site said.

A district spokesman declined further comment Saturday.

Lower Merion, an affluent district in Philadelphia's suburbs, issues Apple laptops to all 2,300 students at its two high schools. Only two employees in the technology department, not administrators, were authorized to activate the cameras, which captured still images but not sound, officials said.

"While certain rules for laptop use were spelled out ... there was no explicit notification that the laptop contained the security software," McGinley said. "This notice should have been given, and we regret that was not done."

The district's Web site said 42 activations of the system resulted in the recovery of 18 computers.

McGinley said the district had hired former Henry Hockeimer Jr., a former federal prosecutor, to review past practices and suggest improvements.

The FBI is looking into whether federal wiretap or computer-intrusion laws were violated, according to an official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

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