From the outset of the Lower Merion School District's webcam saga, a question has persisted:
How many students were really like Blake Robbins? How many students, like him, were secretly photographed in their bedroom by a school-issued computer, then confronted with one of those pictures by a principal?
A hint of an answer came Wednesday: Maybe none.
In a new filing, the attorney for Robbins and his parents said they would drop plans to seek monetary damages for all Lower Merion students, acknowledging that his case, the one that lit the firestorm over the district's laptop tracking, was unique.
The move could pave the way for a quicker settlement between the district and the Robbinses and minimize the costs of the webcam furor. But it also opens the door to more individual lawsuits over the now-disabled tracking program.
The Robbinses' attorney, Mark Haltzman, said they weren't backing away from their claim that the district violated high school students' civil rights by secretly snapping photos and capturing screen shots from school-issued laptops over the last two school years.
And the investigation that is part of the civil suit has not halted. Wednesday, the district's former top technology administrator, Virginia DiMedio, answered lawyers' questions under oath about the laptop security program.
But Haltzman said that all sides were close to agreeing on a permanent injunction that would protect the would-be class members - students at Lower Merion and Harriton high schools - from future webcam monitoring. He also acknowledged that little evidence had emerged to suggest that Blake Robbins' experience was common enough to represent a class.
"We now realize that each person was damaged so uniquely that it wouldn't be appropriate to seek damages as a class-action," he said.
Henry Hockeimer Jr., an attorney for school district, declined to comment.
A report released last week by Lower Merion's school board said its investigators found no proof that district employees used the technology to spy on students.
The investigators' report said the vast majority of images collected by the software - more than 56,000 - came from laptops that had been reported lost or stolen, though many continued to shoot webcam photos for days or weeks after they were returned to students.
In nearly a dozen cases, investigators said, they could not determine the reasons officials activated the webcams and tracking software.
According to the report, Robbins, a Harriton High sophomore, had damaged two laptops when he asked for a loaner last October.
When school officials realized he took the borrowed computer home without paying a required insurance fee, an administrator ordered technicians to get it back, the report said. They then activated the remote tracking system on Robbins' laptop and let it run, despite determining where the computer was.
Robbins learned of the monitoring in November, when an assistant principal confronted him with a photo taken by his laptop webcam. He said it showed him with a handful of Mike & Ike candies, which the principal thought were pills.
The family sued three months later, seeking class-action certification.
The decision not to pursue class-action damages was tucked inside a filing that asked U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois to limit the number of parties allowed to participate as the case moves toward a resolution.
Attorneys for two sets of Lower Merion parents have asked to intervene on the case. Haltzman's filing said lawyers for the American Civil Liberties Union, representing one unnamed family, "has worked quietly behind the scenes in a cooperative way" toward a resolution in the case.
He asked the judge to bar from the case attorneys from lmsdparents.org, a group that says it represents nearly 500 district parents. That group, represented by three attorneys who are also parents of Lower Merion students, has criticized Haltzman, asked to opt out of any class, and asked the judge to limit lawyers' comments about the case to the media.
Haltzman's filing questioned the motive of the lmsdparents.org group and their attorneys, and said they would add "nothing but increased costs, expense and delay to this litigation."
Bob Wegbreit, one of the group members, disputed that and said the group planned to respond to the judge. He said they do not trust that Haltzman or the Robbinses will adequately represent student interests.
"We've stated very clearly all along, our concern is about the students and families of Lower Merion schools, their privacy issues and being able to focus on education," Wegbreit said.