Two information-technology employees of the Lower Merion School District have been placed on leave while an investigation continues into the use of remote surveillance software on student laptops.

The two people authorized to activate the software - Michael Perbix, a network technician, and Carol Cafiero, information systems coordinator - were put on paid leave last week while lawyers and technicians examine how the remote system was used, The Inquirer learned yesterday.

Lawyers for Cafiero and Perbix said their clients did nothing wrong. Perbix and Cafiero turned on the remote software only when a laptop was reported missing, they said - and administrators knew what they were doing.

"A phone call had to come from the high school to turn it on," said Charles Mandracchia, attorney for Cafiero. "And if it was turned on, it was turned on with the understanding that the computer was either lost or stolen."

Perbix's salary this year is $86,379. Cafiero, who supervises 16 technicians and administrative assistants, makes $105,569. Both have been with the Lower Merion district for 12 years, according to spokesman Douglas Young.

Their lawyers said the use of the software was no secret. On at least two occasions, the district turned over pictures and other information to Lower Merion police so they could help track stolen laptops.

The district even set up a secure Web site so the police could have access to pictures and other information, according to attorneys in the case.

"Quite honestly, the police knew about these devices," said Marc Neff, a lawyer representing Perbix. "They were not in the dark about the fact that these computers were being tracked."

Lower Merion Township Police Superintendent Michael J. McGrath did not return calls seeking comment.

The district's use of the software touched off a national furor when the parents of Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins, 15, filed a federal lawsuit on Feb. 16 saying that school officials used the remote-control software to invade his privacy.

An assistant principal later confronted Robbins because she thought a photo and screen image showed he might be dealing drugs, according to Mark Haltzman, the attorney who represents Blake and his parents, Michael and Holly Robbins.

The district says it turned on the camera in Robbins' computer because, since he had not paid a $55 insurance fee, he should not have been taking it home.

Since then, the district has acknowledged that the software was used 42 times this school year to help recover 18 laptops. Still unknown is how many students were photographed, how many photos were taken, and what they showed.

After the lawsuit was filed, district officials said they had disabled the remote surveillance system. They also acknowledged they had not disclosed its existence to parents.

Lawyers hired by the district to conduct an internal review have been interviewing staff, and a computer-forensics firm has begun to sift through photos and data collected by the system.

Henry E. Hockeimer, the Ballard Spahr lawyer heading that effort, declined to comment.

Federal authorities also have opened a grand jury probe, and have given the district a subpoena for records relating to the alleged laptop spying.

In the last two years, the Lower Merion district has supplied Apple MacBooks to all 2,300 high school students.

The theft-tracking software was a feature in a program called LanREV, purchased by the district in 2007 to help manage the growing laptop network. It allows the technology staff to update software to all the computers at once, remotely.

It also has a feature called "Theft Tracker" that lets the network administrators figure out where their computers are - and capture images of who is using them, and what is on the computer screen.

In each case, the tracking has to be turned on for an individual computer. Once that happens, the program will begin snapping photos and recording the computer's Internet location at regular intervals, as long as the laptop is on, open, and connected.

At Lower Merion, that interval was usually set at the default, 15 minutes.

The photos were snapped and turned over to police not long after Harriton students got their laptops in the fall of 2008. A half-dozen laptops were stolen from the Harriton locker room during a gym class, according to people familiar with the incident.

Police were given access to the remote-control photos and screen shots; the information allowed them to recover some of the missing computers.

In a 2008 promotional Webcast for LanREV, Perbix spoke enthusiastically about the tracking ability, calling it a "fantastic feature" that had allowed him to find missing laptops.

Once, he said, he turned it on and found out that a computer thought missing was really in a classroom; by the time he checked, the camera had snapped 20 pictures of a teacher and students, he said.

Neff, his attorney, described Perbix as a "hardworking computer guy" who "year round, day after day, takes care of these things like they're his children."

He said that no one in the 26-member technology department was using the system for any reason other than to locate missing MacBooks.

"There were enough policies in place that no one was running amok with these systems," Neff said, but no one in the district's administration office made those policies official.

"Unfortunately, I don't think they were written policies that were adopted by administrators," Neff said.

Inquirer staff writers Derrick Nunnally and Dan Hardy contributed to this article.
Contact staff writer Joseph Tanfani at 215-854-2684 or jtanfani@phillynews.com