A federal judge Friday permanently banned the Lower Merion School District from using webcams or other intrusive technology to secretly monitor students through their school-issued laptops.
The five-page injunction signed by U.S. District Judge Jan E. DuBois also requires the district to adopt transparent and expansive policies by September to govern its student laptop program.
It says Lower Merion can implement an alternative to webcam tracking to find missing or stolen computers, but only if the technology is "conspicuously disclosed" in a document signed by students and their parents. And it says the district needs to make accommodations for students who do not want to participate.
The order followed weeks of negotiations by lawyers for the district and students' families, and it did not stray far from the spirit of the temporary restraints the judge imposed in February. It also mirrored many of the practices Lower Merion officials had already pledged to institute.
Still, the injunction marked the latest and perhaps largest step the district has taken to move past the laptop-tracking furor that erupted three months ago. And though it is tailored only to protect the thousands who attend Lower Merion schools, some hope it can serve as a broader model for districts striving to make 21st-century technology an integral part of learning.
"If we get it right here, we save a lot of trouble for other people," said Mary Catherine Roper, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer who helped draft the agreement.
The judge also finalized plans to notify nearly 40 Lower Merion students who were surreptitiously photographed by their school-issued laptops so they and their parents can privately view the images. A federal magistrate will oversee the inspection process, and the photos will later be destroyed.
The injunction was one of the original demands in the lawsuit filed by the family of Harriton High sophomore Blake Robbins, the claim that exposed the district's use of webcams on student laptops. The Robbinses and the district are still negotiating a monetary settlement to end their claim, but the family has dropped plans to seek class-action damages. The family's attorney, Mark Haltzman, said Friday's order "put us very far down the road to resolving the equitable injunctive relief we had sought."
Lower Merion spokesman Doug Young and Henry Hockeimer Jr., a lawyer for the district, declined to comment on the injunction. The district's superintendent, Christopher McGinley, had previously apologized to Lower Merion families and vowed to make improvements.
District officials said they used the tracking system only to recover lost or stolen laptops. But they also have acknowledged that because of poor oversight, they inadvertently captured thousands of photos and screen images long after some laptops were recovered and returned to students. In those cases, the webcam and software snapped a new photo and screen shot every 15 minutes the machine was open and online.
One of the thornier issues had been how to handle those images. All parties agreed they should be destroyed, but not before the students were able to see them. Lower Merion officials have maintained that there were no "salacious or inappropriate" webcam photos, but said some showed students in their homes, or with friends or relatives. Robbins has asserted that one webcam photo showed him sleeping in his Penn Valley home and that another showed him shirtless.
The district initially proposed showing the photos to the affected students and their parents, and asked Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge Thomas Rueter to manage the process. The ACLU, representing an unidentified Lower Merion family, objected, arguing that some teens might not want their parents to see the images.
"Our position is that the people whose privacy has been violated and the people whose private information is at stake here are the students, regardless of whether or not the students are minors," said Roper, the ACLU lawyer.
A second order DuBois signed Friday includes a sample letter to be sent to students. According to the letter, the teens will be allowed first to review the images alone.
"If there are any images you don't want [parents or guardians] to see, you may let Judge Rueter know and he will discuss with you how to handle that situation," it reads.
The negotiations over the injunction also included attorneys for other Lower Merion families who asked the judge to intervene, either because they did not trust the Robbinses or because they had other interests.
One of those attorneys, Michael Boni, said that he and the other members of the group who helped formed lmsdparents.org were delighted with the agreement. Boni, a class-action lawyer, said it was highly unusual for all sides to reach a settlement like this in two months.
But he said his group had no plans to disband or withdraw its request to be a party in the Robbinses' case. "We're still going to be involved," he said.