Pennsylvania School Violates Student Privacy

Katrina Kovalik

Schools across the country have made use of numerous resources for monitoring students, including campus surveillance systems, filtering software on library computers and even social networking sites like Facebook.

However, the administration of Harriton High School in Pennsylvania has been accused of taking their supervision role past legal limits when the cameras on school-distributed laptops were used to spy on students within their own homes. On Nov. 11, 2009, Assistant Principal Lindy Matsako, accused 15-year-old student Blake Robbins of improper behavior and cited a supposedly incriminating laptop photo of Robbins in his bedroom as evidence.

The Robbins family has filed a lawsuit against Harriton High School of the Lower Merion School District on the grounds of violation of privacy.

“I think what they’re doing was absolutely terrible and scary,” said Robbins on a segment on Good Morning America. “They are invading my house. They might as well be sitting in my room watching me without my knowing.”

Robbins and his parents have told reporters that the school accused him of selling drugs after they mistook a piece of candy for a pill.

Harriton High School gave out 2,300 laptops to its students starting last year. The Lower Merion School District claims that all of the laptops had been installed with a security feature that allows the laptops’ cameras to be remotely activated in order to locate one if it were reported missing or stolen.

The attorney for the Robbins family contends that schools have very limited rights under the constitution and that those rights don’t extend to monitoring students’ off-campus and non-school related activities.

“When a school decides to provide equipment for students, there needs to be a very clear understanding with the parents and the students about the safety and use of that equipment,” said Miramonte computer lab technician Karen Wetherell. “But I don’t think that this type of video surveillance has a place in a school district.”

The school’s administration has told the press that they are convinced they will prevail in court and promise to better inform the community about the laptops’ security features. But with more and more students from Harriton stepping forward with testimonies of having seen their laptop’s camera lights flickering green, the school may have more than one family in need of an explanation.