Did school use laptops to spy on students? Feds won't press charges.

Federal investigations into whether a Pennsylvania school district used school-issue laptops to take pictures of students – and of what they were doing online – did not yield enough evidence to file charges, a US attorney said Tuesday.

Holly and Michael Robbins, the parents of Harriton High School sophomore Blake Robbins, arrive at Federal Court in Philadelphia in April for a meeting on the thousands of webcam photos and potential evidence for their lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District.

The federal government has ended its investigation of allegations that a Pennsylvania school district used webcams on school-issued laptop computers to monitor the activities of students both at school and at home.

US Attorney Zane David Memeger announced in Philadelphia on Tuesday that he would not file charges against officials in the Lower Merion School District. He said the review was conducted by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, as well as local and county law enforcement officials.

“We have not found evidence that would establish beyond a reasonable doubt that anyone involved had criminal intent,” Mr. Memeger said.

The government began the investigation after revelations in February that school officials were monitoring students through the web camera on their school-supplied laptops. The officials also had the ability to monitor students by taking multiple screenshots of the content on the student’s computer screen.

The computer programs that enabled the monitoring were justified as an antitheft program. But students and their parents were not told of the monitoring capability, and the school district had no guidelines on who would be monitored and under what conditions.

'Improper behavior in his home'

The issue became public when a student at the local high school, Blake Robbins, and his parents filed a class action lawsuit against the school district for allegedly violating federal computer privacy laws and the Fourth Amendment.

According to the complaint, school officials confronted Robbins, telling him they suspected he had engaged in “improper behavior in his home.” They cited as evidence a photograph taken from the webcam in his school-issued laptop computer.

The school district later acknowledged that it could remotely activate the webcam at any time – including in the student’s bedroom.

According to school officials, they monitored Robbins from Oct. 20, 2009 to Nov. 4, 2009. Without his knowledge, they took 210 webcam photos and 218 screenshots of the information on the teen’s computer screen.

The class action lawsuit is pending.

30,000 webcam photos

In the meantime, the school district hired a consultant to conduct an investigation. According to the consultant’s report, issued May 3, officials monitored more than 40 students who were issued laptop computers. Those incidents generated 30,881 webcam photographs of students, and 27,761 screenshots.

In the case of 10 of the students, the consultant was unable to determine any authorization for the monitoring activity, the report says. That monitoring generated 2,507 photographs and 2,212 screenshots. But the report says that images were only recovered for three of the 10 students.

The school board has adopted new laptop computer policies.

Lower Merion School District Superintendent Dr. Christopher McGinley said the US attorney’s announcement not to file charges supports the findings of the district’s own internal investigation.

Robbins’ lawyer said the case points up the need for tighter privacy laws. Without new laws “our students will continue to remain vulnerable,” said lawyer Mark Haltzman.

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