• School district accused of spying on students at home!

    Date: 02.22.10 | by Judge Tom.

    All students at Harriton High School in Pennsylvania are provided laptops to take home to use with their school work. The computers had microphones and webcams that allegedly could be activated by school personnel without a student’s knowledge or permission. Neither the students or their parents were told about these devices on the computers.

    FOURTH AMENDMENT [U.S. Constitution]

    ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.’

    Blake Robbins is a 15-year-old student at the school. He was told by an assistant principal that the school thought he had engaged in improper behavior at home. She cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam in Blake’s school-issued laptop. Apparently a piece of candy in the photo was mistaken for a pill and a school official thought Blake was selling drugs. An investigation showed that Blake was photographed 400 times in a two-week period, sometimes as he slept in his bedroom.

    On February 16, 2010, Blake and his parents filed a lawsuit in federal court. In addition to claiming an invasion of privacy, are search and seizure issues regarding eavesdropping and warrantless collection of evidence. The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects everyone, including teenagers, from unreasonable searches and seizures. They seek class-action status covering all affected students. In the meantime, students are taping over the webcams and microphones. The FBI is also investigating the incident to see if any federal wiretapping or computer-intrusion laws were violated. In August, 2010, the FBI announced that no criminal charges would be filed in this case against the school or any administrators. Based on the evidence they found no criminal intent or wrongdoing.

    Update:  In May, 2010, a judge issued an order banning the school district from secretly monitoring students with webcams on school-issued laptops.  The investigation into this incident revealed 56,000 screen shots and webcam images were taken involving approximately 40 students.  The district was ordered to show the images to the students and their parents.

    In October, 2010, the lawsuits were settled for $610,000.00.  Blake will receive $175,000, $10,000 to a second student who sued (Jalil Hassan), and the remainder for legal costs and attorney fees. The school has ended the tracking program for their computers.

    How do you feel about this incident? Are you surprised that something like this could happen in 2010? Assuming it’s true, what would be an appropriate resolution and penalty against the school? Discuss with your parents and teachers the Fourth Amendment and its protections against “unreasonable” searches. This is a great teaching moment for all of us.

    Related case:  In 2012, over 200 high schools in England, Scotland and Wales placed cameras in bathrooms and locker rooms. Just the doors to the stalls and sink areas are videotaped with the goal of reducing bullying incidents and in the interest of student safety. The videos are viewed by school officials only when a problem is reported and are kept for up to thirty days. In these countries, such a measure is legal whereas in the United States, the issue is one of “expectation of privacy” and the Fourth Amendment. What do you think about this step to ensure your on-campus safety? Is this going too far?

    Judge Tom

    This post was written by Judge Tom. Judge Tom is the founder and moderator of AsktheJudge.info. He is a retired juvenile judge and spent 23 years on the bench. He has written several books for lawyers and judges as well as teens and parents including the recently published 'Teen Cyberbullying Investigated' (Free Spirit Publishing). When he's not answering teens' questions, Judge Tom can be found hiking, traveling and reading.

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