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Karen Heller: L. Merion paying a price for free laptops

There's no such thing as a free computer. If we've learned anything so far in the Lower Merion MacSpy debacle, it's that every potential "gift" comes with strings attached. Or, in this case, spyware.

There's no such thing as a free computer.

If we've learned anything so far in the Lower Merion MacSpy debacle, it's that every potential "gift" comes with strings attached. Or, in this case, spyware.

And, now, as these things tend to happen, lawsuits.

The parents of Harriton student Blake Robbins filed a complaint in federal court last week alleging that the school spied on him at home. The family claims that the sophomore was confronted by an assistant principal about using drugs when, his lawyers assert, he was in fact ingesting Mike and Ike candies.

The laptop-in-every-lap program began two years ago at Harriton and this academic year at Lower Merion. Why did the district hand out MacBooks like so many No. 2 pencils? Because it could.

The schools are situated in one of America's richest communities, where almost all family bank accounts are above average - the median household income is $112,300. The houses are exceptional, too, the median home valued at $583,900. The family poverty rate is almost squat, 2.4 percent.

Among Southeastern Pennsylvania's 64 school districts, Lower Merion is top in student expenditures, $21,663 per child in 2008-09, while the Philadelphia School District ranked 60th, at $11,426.

Some folks wonder why Lower Merion students receive laptops, when there are likely several at home, while students in Philadelphia don't.

Central High School, a jewel of Philadelphia's public system, doesn't distribute laptops, though district magnet schools such as the Science Leadership Academy and Microsoft's School of the Future do.

But fairness has little to do with life, let alone education, and Lower Merion residents pay plenty of taxes to support their schools.

Science Leadership Academy principal Chris Lehmann makes a strong argument for all schools' using laptops. "We use them every possible way," he says. Well, not for spying. Administrators at the 500-student school don't have time for that.

"They can be an incredibly positive tool, especially if it's not just about doing homework," Lehmann says. "We want to transform the pedagogy of the classroom from lecture-based to inquiry-based."

Science Leadership's physical site, except for a few labs, resembles a brightly painted, underfunded insurance office. At the school, where enthusiasm runs high, the reliance on laptops for learning is significant.

At the Lower Merion School District, with an abundance of everything, including a new $100 million Harriton facility and a $108.5 million Lower Merion building still under construction, the dependence on computers varies by teacher; the laptop program is still in its infancy - and now, alas, in infamy. Computers are an integral part in many classrooms, students say, although dismissed by some teachers wary of their overall contribution.

Used wisely, computers are powerful tools. They're also toys. Blake Robbins' sister, Paige, told the CBS Morning News "on behalf of all of my girlfriends at Harriton, we were very scared, because we don't check to see if the lid is closed when we're changing. We take them in the bathroom when we're in the shower to listen to music."

But back to the laptops' original use. Wait until Lower Merion residents understand the ultimate cost they're going to pay for these "free" computers.

District officials have admitted to triggering the spyware 42 times this academic year. To defend their actions, they have hired top white-collar defense attorney Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. He works for Ballard Spahr L.L.P., where, in 2007, a partner billed the commonwealth $531 an hour. Residents of the district will be paying for Hockeimer, too.

Montgomery County District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman is investigating. Residents pay for that, and for the courts that will adjudicate.

The U.S. attorney and FBI are looking into whether the laptop webcam usage broke any laws. For that, we taxpayers all share the bill.

So, what lesson does the MacSpy debacle teach us?

A. Understand privacy laws first, or end up supporting a courtroom of lawyers.

B. With just a few wrong moves, Lower Merion can go viral on the news, known for more than excellence, affluence, and Kobe Bryant.

C. Sometimes, even the region's smartest, richest school district can be dumb.