The problem all along, Carol Cafiero says, was the lack of a written policy.
The administrator who managed the Lower Merion School District's laptop security system says she asked her bosses at least three times to clarify the rules for activating the Web cams and tracking software on students' computers.
"I tried to get the administration to look closely and get a policy on several occasions," Cafiero said in her first interview since the district put her on paid leave. "There was only so much I can do. They did nothing. It fell on deaf ears."
The last time she tried, Cafiero said, was after a technician told her in November that he had activated a student's laptop Web cam even though the computer was not missing.
According to Cafiero, the technician said a Lower Merion High School teacher had pressed him to turn on the camera based on a suspicion that the student was goofing off in class.
Cafiero said she told the technician his job "was not to spy on students" and reminded him that they were to activate the tracking system only for lost or stolen laptops.
She said she brought that incident up on Nov. 10 during a meeting on the laptop initiative with administrators from both district high schools and her boss, George Frazier, director of information systems.
According to Cafiero, Frazier said he opposed activating the Web cams on students' laptops, but other administrators wanted to keep using the feature.
"There was some back-and-forth discussion amongst them and the final decision was to keep doing what we were doing," she said. "I was a little surprised, but, again, I wasn't the policy maker."
Cafiero made her comments during an interview on Wednesday at the Skippack office of her lawyer, Charles Mandracchia. She agreed to talk, she said, because she felt she had been unfairly tarnished since a lawsuit shined a spotlight on the district's now-disabled laptop-tracking program in February.
"It was very embarrassing being placed on administrative leave when I had nothing to do with this case and I did nothing wrong," she said.
Henry E. Hockeimer Jr., the district lawyer leading a team preparing a report on the tracking system, declined to discuss Cafiero's role or comments.
He said, "Issues like these will be addressed in the report," due Monday.
Frazier, who became the district's top technology administrator in July, deferred questions Thursday to Doug Young, a district spokesman. Young declined to comment except to say he looked forward to the report.
Cafiero, 45, the district's information systems coordinator, was one of only two employees with the authority to turn on the software that could capture Web-cam photos and desktop screen images every 15 minutes from a running laptop.
She and the other employee, technician Michael Perbix, were suspended with pay a week after Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins and his parents filed a lawsuit accusing the district of spying on students through the laptops. Robbins said an assistant Harriton principal confronted him with a Web-cam photo that had been shot in his Penn Valley home.
Cafiero said Perbix handled most of the activation requests. She estimated she had been asked to turn on the Web cams less than six times in two years.
"I had no involvement whatsoever with the Blake Robbins incident," she said. "The first I heard of it was the day the lawsuit was published."
The suit prompted an FBI probe, proposed legislation, and brought international attention to the highly regarded district.
Cafiero was largely in the background until she refused to answer questions under oath from Mark Haltzman, the Robbinses' attorney. Haltzman then claimed in a court motion that Cafiero "may have been a voyeur" who accessed student photos at home.
Cafiero and her lawyer fired back, calling the claim outrageous and baseless. They said they had also filed a complaint about Haltzman's allegations with the state Disciplinary Board of the Supreme Court, which oversees lawyers.
In the interview Wednesday, Cafiero said she had invoked her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination because she wanted to meet with FBI agents before answering questions from lawyers in the civil case.
She has since agreed to answer Haltzman's questions under oath, perhaps as soon as next week. She also turned over her home computer for inspection but said the only photos investigators will find are of her dogs and her nieces and nephews.
Haltzman said Thursday, "It's great to know that she's actually coming forward because I think students and their families are entitled to know this information."
Cafiero said she proposed nearly three years ago that the district buy the LanRev software technology because it would let technicians remotely and simultaneously upload and maintain software on 6,500 laptops used by Lower Merion students and staff.
Her September 2007 memo outlined the software's features, including a theft-tracking system that allowed officials to "take screen shots and pictures of the user with the built-in camera" to find and recover stolen laptops.
Cafiero said she prepared that memo for her boss at the time, Virginia DiMedio, because the software cost nearly $150,000 and "I knew that Ginny was going to have to answer to somebody higher up."
DiMedio did not respond to e-mail and phone messages seeking comment Thursday.
The software purchase was approved. A year later, it got a test: Someone stole six laptops from the Harriton High School gymnasium.
E-mails that Cafiero and her attorney shared with The Inquirer showed how a half-dozen or so staffers dashed notes to each other as they tracked those laptops in 2008. In one e-mail, a technician who was seeing the photos told Cafiero it was "like a little LMSD soap opera" and Cafiero replied, "I know, I love it."
Cafiero said in the interview that her e-mail referred to the technology, not the photos.
"I was excited because the program was being used in earnest for the first time. The technology was doing its job and we were catching pictures of thieves who stole computers," she said.
Two days after the thefts, Cafiero e-mailed DiMedio. "Can we please get a procedure or some chain of command together next week?" she wrote.
"Sure," DiMedio replied, according to the e-mails Cafiero released this week. DiMedio added that staffers should know to call supervisors and building administrators first when laptops went missing.
DiMedio ended her e-mail: "We'll get it together next week."
But no such meeting was ever held, Cafiero said.
She said she tried to revisit the subject in August during a meeting with DiMedio's replacement, Frazier, and others in the technology department.
Cafiero said she could not recall that conversation. But notes that she said were from the meeting describe the outcome. Next to "Establish Computer Tracking Guidelines," she typed: "Discussed but no decision was made."