Pa. school district asked not to wipe laptops

/ Source: The Associated Press

A student who accuses his suburban Philadelphia school district in a lawsuit of spying on students via their school-issued webcams will ask district officials not to remove any potential evidence from student computers, his lawyer said Monday.

Lawyers for the Lower Merion School District are due in federal court on the issue Monday afternoon, on an emergency petition from student Blake Robbins of Penn Valley.

Lower Merion officials confirmed last week they had activated the webcams to try to find 42 missing laptops, without the knowledge or permission of students and their families. Both the FBI and local authorities are investigating whether the district broke any wiretap, computer-use or other laws.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a brief in support of the student Monday, arguing that the photo amounts to an illegal search.

"That school officials' warrantless, non-consensual use of a camera, embedded in students' laptops, inside the home is a search cannot be doubted," the ACLU wrote in a brief filed Monday morning.

Students at the district's two high schools have taken to taping over the webcam and microphone, even as school officials insist they have stopped the practice.

Robbins sued last week, alleging that Harriton High School officials took a photo of him inside his home. He learned of it when an assistant principal said she knew he was engaging in improper behavior at home, according to his potentially class-action lawsuit. Robbins and his family have told reporters that an official mistook a piece of candy for a pill and thought he was selling drugs.

In the wake of the outcry over the alleged spying, school district officials have said they have abandoned the practice of remotely activating the webcams. Still, the Robbinses' lawyer does not want the district to remove any information or programs from the 2,300 laptops issued to students at its two high schools.

"Defendants intend to reclaim each laptop from the possession of members of the class for the purpose of wiping clean the hard drive or otherwise engaging in the spoliation of evidence," family lawyer Mark S. Haltzman wrote in the emergency petition.

Lawyer Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., who represents the district, urged families and community members not to jump to conclusions.

"These are important issues, and we view them seriously," Hockeimer, a former federal prosecutor, said in a statement.

While courts have held that students can be searched at school given "reasonable suspicion" of a crime — a more relaxed standard than "probable cause," designed to ensure school safety — the lower standard does not apply in the home, the ACLU argued in its brief.

The district recovered 18 of the 42 laptops that disappeared in the past 14 months, district spokesman Doug Young said Monday. He did not immediately know whether any were found — after the webcam pictures were taken — in student homes.

Young has declined to discuss whether Blake Robbins' laptop was reported missing, because of the litigation, but said the district did not violate its policy to activate webcams only for that purpose.

Robbins insists in court filings that it was never reported missing.

The district has no plans to take back the student laptops, Young said.

"To the extent any mistakes were made, we will make recommendations for any needed changes in policies and procedures," Hockheimer said.