The president of the Lower Merion school board said Friday that investigators had retrieved "a substantial number" of photos secretly snapped by laptops the district gave its high school students, and that officials were arranging for parents whose children were photographed to see the pictures in private.
In his strongest terms since the furor began over the laptop-tracking program two months ago, board president David Ebby also said district officials "deeply regret the mistakes and misguided actions" that have given rise to a lawsuit, a federal criminal inquiry, a call for new privacy legislation, and a wave of national publicity.
But Ebby said Lower Merion's continuing internal investigation had found no evidence that its employees used the technology for "inappropriate" purposes."
"We are committed to disclosing fully what happened, correcting our mistakes, and making sure that they do not happen again," he said in a statement addressed to parents and guardians and posted on the district's Web site.
Ebby's comments came less than a day after a lawyer for Harriton High sophomore Blake Robbins filed a motion in federal court asserting that the district's system for tracking lost or stolen laptops had secretly captured "thousands" of images, including photos of students in their homes, the Web sites they visited, and excerpts of their online chats.
Robbins and his parents, residents of Penn Valley, filed the suit in February that first drew attention to the laptop-tracking system and triggered an investigation by school officials - as well as a federal investigation into whether wiretap and privacy laws had been violated.
As part of that federal probe, the school administrator who ran the tracking system is to be interviewed next week by an FBI agent, her lawyer said yesterday.
And U.S. Attorney Michael Levy, in a letter sent Friday, asked the judge presiding over the Robbinses' civil case to let FBI agents start analyzing the district's computers and the photos they collected. U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois has previously ruled that only lawyers for the Robbinses and the schools should see such evidence.
Ebby also said the school district planned to enlist Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter to oversee the contacting of parents and showing them the photos.
"During that process, the privacy of all students will be strongly protected," the board president said in his statement.
School officials have said they activated the tracking system - which shot Web cam photos, snapped an image of the laptop screen, and identified the machine's location through an Internet address - only when a school-issued laptop was lost, stolen, or, as in Robbins' case, taken home without payment of a required $55 insurance fee. They have said they activated the system 42 times during this school year and a number of times last year.
School officials declined Friday to elaborate on what Ebby meant by "a substantial number" of photos being amassed, or to address Robbins' contention that the Web cam on his school-issued laptop snapped at least one photo when he was partially undressed. The district's investigation is expected to be finished by May 4.
"We do not feel it is appropriate for anyone other than the investigators to dictate the timing of the investigation and the release of complete findings," Ebby said. "As we have made clear since Day One, we are committed to providing all of the facts - good and bad - at the conclusion of the investigation."
In his latest motion, the Robbins family's attorney, Mark S. Haltzman, said that during two weeks in the fall, the tracking system on the Apple MacBook that Robbins took home captured more than 400 images of the 15-year-old and his family members - including shots of Blake asleep in bed.
The details in the Haltzman motion, along with Ebby's published statement, drew mixed reaction from Lower Merion parents contacted on Friday.
Joe Garecht, father of a kindergartner, said the district seemed to have "a casual attitude" about the tracking-system program and the uproar it had caused.
"This is clearly a district that doesn't have it together," he said. "Their attitude was, 'We'll just figure this out as we go along.' "
Andy Derrow, father of a student at Harriton, said he considered the latest motion an attempt by the Robbinses and their lawyer to further embarrass the district.
"I'm confident that a comprehensive report on the Web cam issue will be coming soon to the parents and students," Derrow said. "Until then, we should all reserve judgment."
The Robbinses' motion also asserted that the school official who ran the laptop-tracking program, Carol Cafiero, may have downloaded surveillance photos on her home computer and should be ordered to surrender it.
Cafiero's lawyer, Charles Mandracchia, said Friday his client was eager to cooperate but first wanted to meet with the criminal investigators. An FBI agent plans to interview her Tuesday, he said.
Mandracchia also said Cafiero, who is on paid leave from her school post, never looked at or tried to look at any pictures of Robbins.
"Carol Cafiero did not look at any Blake Robbins pictures - not one," Mandracchia said in an interview. "The only time she would ever go in [to the system] was if someone asked her to or directed her to - and it was only two or three times."
In each case, he said, Cafiero was asked to help find a missing laptop. None of the photos she saw were inappropriate, he said.
Mandracchia also took issue with Haltzman's use of district e-mail excerpts in the motion filed Thursday. The motion said another Lower Merion schools employee, after viewing photos from the Web cameras, had written to Cafiero: "It's like a little LMSD soap opera."
According to the motion, Cafiero e-mailed back: "I know, I love it!"
Mandracchia said the e-mail exchange between Cafiero and the employee, Amanda Wuest, took place more than a year before the district activated the tracking system on Blake Robbins' computer. The attorney gave The Inquirer a copy of what he said was the entire exchange, dated Sept. 19, 2008.
The copy appears to show that the two women were responding to a report from four students that a laptop was missing from a Harriton High gym. Officials first checked surveillance cameras in the building but saw nothing suspicious, according to the e-mail.
Referring to the tracking program's tools, Wuest wrote back to Cafiero: "Hopefully, if they were taken, we'll get some screen captures/pictures over the weekend."