Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed the Lower Merion School District for documents related to the controversial use of remote-control cameras on students' school-issued computers, The Inquirer has learned.
The grand jury subpoena, delivered yesterday, asked for a broad range of records related to the so-called webcams and the security system that district officials used to activate them, said a lawyer who had been briefed about the matter. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.
School district spokesman Douglas Young said he could not comment last night when asked whether such a subpoena had been received. Philadelphia FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver cited the agency's policy of not confirming or denying any pending investigation.
Word of the subpoena came as the elite suburban school district, through Young, conceded that "notice should have been given" to families that the district's computer system would snap photos of school laptop users - even in children's homes - if the laptops were reported missing or stolen.
School technicians have activated that system 42 times this school year when the district's laptops were reported missing or stolen, Young said. He said parents and students should have been told clearly of the policy in advance.
Young said the district had hired former federal prosecutor Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. to "provide a comprehensive review of past practices and policies, as well as assist us in implementing appropriate improvements."
The district's statements grew out of a lawsuit that has prompted headlines across the country: a Penn Valley family's claim, filed Tuesday in federal court, that Harriton High School's assistant principal had confronted a 15-year-old son with a photo taken by the security system on his school-issued laptop when he was using it at home.
"There was no specific notification given that described the security feature," Young said. "That notice should have been given, and we regret not giving it. That . . . was a significant mistake."
Starting last school year, the district assigned laptops to most of its 2,300 high school students and allowed them to take them home. The initiative was designed to enhance the use of technology by students and to give students who did not have computers at home access to them.
Young said he did not know whether the district had crafted a written policy outlining how the security system was to be used, what would trigger the webcam, and how its findings would be handled.
He said only two "technical department" administrators were able to access the security system, but added: "There is an essential need to clarify the procedures and specify the process of what should happen."
Virginia DiMedio, the district's technology director until she retired last summer, said she recalled no discussions about what to tell families about the security system, and how and when it would be used.
Meanwhile, as federal prosecutors were issuing their subpoena, Montgomery County prosecutors were reviewing allegations in the suit for possible evidence of violations of wiretap or privacy laws.
District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said yesterday: "We're going to be looking into the situation to see if a criminal investigation is warranted."
The suit alleges that in November, the Harriton assistant principal confronted sophomore Blake Robbins with a photo of what school officials saw as the boy's "improper activity" - taken by the webcam of his school-issued laptop in his home.
Robbins told TV crews outside his home yesterday that a school laptop's webcam had photographed him eating Mike & Ike candy in his home, but that school officials thought it showed him using drugs.
Young continued to assert yesterday that the only time such photos were taken was when a computer was reported lost or taken. The Robbins family, in a court filing yesterday, said Blake Robbins had been using a school laptop "that was neither reported lost or stolen."
The filing asked a federal court to enjoin the district from talking to students or parents about the case, and to order preservation of all possible evidence. Young said in response that the district had "a responsibility to parents and students to communicate with them about district matters." He said that the district would "cooperate with any investigation."
Debate continued to swirl yesterday around the suit, which students have begun to call "webcamgate." The story has been picked up by news outlets as far away as London and Bangkok, Thailand.
"People are just trying to figure out what happened, what's the truth, what might be fabrication - if the school was spying on us, or if these parents blew it out of proportion," said Hannah Goldberg-Morse, a Lower Merion High School senior and an editor of the student paper.
Indeed, much remains unclear, as the Robbins family and their lawyers have declined to offer details of their claims. The district, citing privacy laws and the litigation, has also declined to comment on specifics of the suit.
Some parents said it was too soon to draw conclusions. "It would be a mistake for people to assume that assertions in a lawsuit are true," said Andy Derrow, father of a junior at Harriton. "Everyone should wait until the facts come out."
Students told of using Post-it notes to cover the laptops' webcams when a telltale green light came on.
Eileen Lake of Wynnewood, a mother of three children attending district schools, said: "If there's a concern that laptops are misplaced or stolen, they should install a chip to relocate them instead. There shouldn't be a reason to use webcams for that purpose."
A Harriton senior, Willa McGowan, 17, of Rosemont, said she, too, was concerned about the webcams - but also about the district's reputation. "Honestly, I love this school and this school district," she said. "I don't want this case to sully Lower Merion's name."