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School workers on leave amid webcam probe

Two information-technology workers at a suburban Philadelphia school district that secretly activated webcams on students' school-issued laptops are on paid leave amid an FBI wiretap investigation.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Two information-technology workers at a suburban Philadelphia school district that secretly activated webcams on students' school-issued laptops are on paid leave amid an FBI wiretap investigation.

Lower Merion School District officials insist the move is not meant to suggest wrongdoing by the veteran employees. They have said the webcams were only activated to find missing laptops, and not for any rogue purpose.

"Placing them on administrative leave with pay is not a reflection of any wrongdoing on their part. It is a standard, prudent step in an investigation such as this one," the district said in a statement Friday, confirming a Philadelphia Inquirer report.

Technician Michael Perbix and systems coordinator Carol Cafiero were put on administrative leave two weeks ago, after a student's lawsuit revealed the district practice of taking webcam photos and screen shots when laptops are reported lost or stolen.

The district admits it remotely activated 42 webcams in the last 14 months, successfully locating 18 of the computers. School officials have declined to describe the resulting photographs, or say if any were taken inside student homes. The district has halted the practice amid the lawsuit and both state and federal criminal probes.

In the civil suit, Harriton High School student Blake Robbins accuses school officials of invading his privacy by photographing him in his bedroom without permission. A vice principal later approached him, he said, and warned that school officials — based on webcam photos in their possession — suspected him of selling drugs.

Robbins denies the drug allegation. He claims Vice Principal Lindy Matsko mistook the Mike & Ike candies he enjoys for illicit pills.

"Ms. Matsko does not deny that she saw a Web-cam picture and screenshot of me in my home," the 15-year-old Robbins said in a statement he read last month outside his family's sprawling Penn Valley home. "She only denies that she is the one who activated the Web cam."

Hours earlier, an infuriated Matsko read her own statement aloud at her lawyer's office. She insisted that she never monitored students through the webcams or authorized anyone else to do so. She stopped short, though, of addressing whether she saw the webcam photos of Robbins or spoke to him about suspected drug use.

Neither she nor Robbins took questions, instead reading prepared statements before an array of TV news cameras.

"If I believed anyone was spying on either of my children in our home, I, too, would be outraged," said Matsko, who has two children in high school.

Lower Merion, a wealthy district on Philadelphia's Main Line, spent $21,600 per student in 2008-2009, the most in the Philadelphia region and nearly twice the $11,426 spent on Philadelphia children. The district issues the $1,000 Macintosh laptops to each of the 2,300 students at two high schools.

Perbix, who earns $86,000 as a technician, and Cafiero, who makes about $105,000, were the only two people authorized to remotely activate the webcams, according to Perbix's lawyer.

"He was not the person that went through these images," lawyer Marc Neff said. That task was left to school administrators and sometimes, in the case of stolen laptops, Lower Merion police, he said. His client is eager to get back to work, he said.

"When the FBI and the police want to ask you questions, that's obviously an unusual position for a guy like this to be put in," Neff said.

Robbins' lawyer hopes to have the suit certified as a class-action suit, but nearly 500 district parents have joined a group formed to fight such a move. They are angry about the webcam fiasco, but also concerned about the financial impact of a large class-action award.

"It's hard to believe that this happened, especially in this school district, which is populated probably by a higher proportion of lawyers than any school district in the country. It's pretty mind-boggling," said lawyer Larry Silver of Narberth, whose daughter attends Harriton.

Losing a few laptops no longer seems like a big problem, he said Friday.

"I think they could have thrown them all out the window and still have saved a lot of money, compared to defending this lawsuit and investigations being done by the U.S. Attorney's Office and other," Silver said. "But hindsight is 20-20."