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L. Merion schools a picture in polarity

When Karen Gotlieb's daughter was about to enter first grade, the Florida family looked around for a top-notch school district and decided it couldn't do better than Lower Merion.

Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, with the district’s administration building at right, has an enviable academic reputation. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)
Lower Merion High School in Ardmore, with the district’s administration building at right, has an enviable academic reputation. (CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer)Read more

When Karen Gotlieb's daughter was about to enter first grade, the Florida family looked around for a top-notch school district and decided it couldn't do better than Lower Merion.

"It's the Cadillac of school districts, or, given this area, the BMW," said Gotlieb, who moved here in 2000.

That's pretty much what everyone says in this Montgomery County district serving the 62,000 residents of some of America's most affluent zip codes. If you were not born in Lower Merion, the odds are you moved there for the schools.

And what's not to like? If you're not blown away by the 65 National Merit Scholarship honorees last year or the high rate of Ivy League admissions, then there are the digital music labs, the renowned Science Olympiad team, and the highly praised, and paid, teachers.

You've probably heard about the free laptops by now.

But behind the gleaming steel and glass facades, life in this vaunted school system exploded in controversy after a couple from Harriton High School alleged in a federal lawsuit last month that the district spied on their son by secretly activating the Web cam in one of the laptops issued to high school students.

District officials responded by shutting down the Web-cam system and acknowledging that they had failed to fully consider its intrusive nature - or disclose its existence to parents and students.

But they denied spying on students and said the system had been activated only 42 times, when laptops were reported stolen.

By then, however, the damage was done.

Most parents and students would probably agree with Superintendent Christopher W. McGinley when he said that the district remained focused on ensuring "our program is of an excellent quality. We have a fabulous team of teachers and administrators."

Lower Merion has a healthy tax base and doesn't mind tapping it. The district spent $21,663 per child last year, highest in the region and practically twice the sum spent across the line in Philadelphia.

The results are evident in the twin Taj Mahals of academia rising up in the district - the $100 million new Harriton High, which opened last fall with its three gyms and greenhouse and passive solar lighting, and the nearly identical new Lower Merion High under construction. There are the little touches, too, like Sushi Thursdays.

A former athletic director, Nick Settanni, had nothing but praise for school leaders, whom he called "top-shelf and very forthright" and noted, "The kids always came first."

But problems have surfaced in recent years, starting with a 2001 survey showing Lower Merion students took part in drinking, drugs and sex just like their peers everywhere else - yet were disciplined far less by parents. After that, the district became one of the first to require prom-goers to take a breath test, amid anxieties that crested with a 2006 drunken-driving death after a teen party.

Meanwhile, there was an undercurrent of race, as black parents claimed their children were treated as pawns in a redistricting plan and dumped into remedial classes or punished more than their white peers. Last May, nine Ardmore parents filed a lawsuit alleging racial discrimination in how the district divided students among its high schools.

This was all before the laptop spying allegations made headlines worldwide while attracting the attention of the FBI and prosecutors.

Parents say both issues stem from the same problem.

"There's been an erosion of trust, in terms of leadership of the district," said Regina Durante, an educational consultant whose son is a senior at Harriton. "I don't believe anything out of administrators' mouths."

The lawsuits have polarized the affluent community, with parents cyber-sniping on the Internet like hormonal teens and creating competing Facebook groups. A group of parents met last night at Narberth Borough Hall to find ways to block the laptop suit from being expanded into a class action.

And last weekend, an e-mail from a Lower Merion supporter called one parent a "freakin' moron" and others "dirt bags," setting off a lively round of bickering among the factions.

"The district is putting their desire for order and control above civil rights," Jennifer Kleeman, a lawyer with two children in Penn Wynne School, said of the laptop controversy. "They're disregarding privacy rights and the best interest of the students for control of laptop security, which is crazy."

What the student, Blake Robbins, might have done - his family claims in its lawsuit that the district snapped a picture of him holding candy and mistook it for drugs - is not the point, she said. "That's secondary to the Fourth Amendment violations."

For some, the problem starts at the top: with the school board. Parents say meetings are conducted with the brusque efficiency of a corporate shareholders meeting. Residents get three minutes to speak. There is rarely a response from school directors, many of whom are lawyers.

"It's two very different stories with a common theme - a school board and school administration that is arrogant and out of touch," said James Herbert, a spokesman for plaintiffs in the redistricting suit.

For black parents - whose children make up 11.1 percent of the 1,402 students at Lower Merion High and 8 percent of Harriton's 892 - the redistricting case shows "we've been talking from our hearts, and they've had another agenda. . . . It's brought about a credibility factor," said the Rev. James Pollard Sr., pastor of Zion Baptist Church in Ardmore.

Others are firmly behind the schools.

The laptop case "does not remind me of George Orwell's 1984, as some people are saying," said Andy Derrow, whose son attends Harriton. "This reminds me of the balloon boy in Colorado.

"People are getting only one side of the story. We know these administrators. If it were true the district were spying on people, that would be reprehensible. We don't believe that happened."

Charles Walsh, another supporter, said: "I think everybody is dedicated to providing the best education they can for the kids. Did they drop the ball on some things? Maybe."

Like their parents, students are torn between celebration of the schools' many academic achievements and a distrust of authority in the person of school authorities. Initially, students "were very quick to jump on the administration, but now that more information is coming out, people are supporting them," said Sivahn Barsade, editor- in-chief of Lower Merion High's student newspaper.

Ben Zander, a senior at Harriton, said the laptop rumpus is "not a big deal on campus," adding that students find the spying allegations hard to believe.

But just in case, some have put black tape over their Web cams, said Gareth Walsh, a sophomore at Harriton.

"It kind of bugs me how everyone is jumping on this and saying, 'Oh, my God, the school is guilty.' Everyone is innocent until proven guilty," he said.

But Regina Durante said her 18-year-old son and his friends "feel creeped out and grossly violated." Many of them keep their laptops open to listen to music while getting dressed.

Because of a federal judge's order in the laptop lawsuit, McGinley and School Board President David Ebby said they couldn't discuss the case.

However, Ebby said he understood that African American parents feel "disrespected." As for the incendiary e-mails that surfaced at a court hearing last week - in one, a school board member says the district was asking black students "to take one for the team" - Ebby said they are "snippets" taken out of context.

"If you make selective use of that information, it would not look good," McGinley said. "I think if you look at the whole picture, people would not feel that way."

As for parents' ire with the board, "if you feel that the board has addressed your concerns, you feel that the board is great. . . . We understand that there are times when we can't make everybody happy," McGinley said.

Two weeks into Web-camgate, as it's been called, students' attention might have shifted to the college acceptances and rejections that are starting to roll in. But they - and their teachers - have shown more civility and good humor than the sometimes impolite parents.

When students in one of 16-year-old Shane Foust's classes at Harriton complained that there were no blinds on the windows to keep out the sunlight, he said, the teacher told them, "Speak up, because there's a microphone in the corner, and maybe they'll hear us."