Can Schools Spy on Children at Home?

Nov 18, 2010

By Kerrie Spencer, staff technology writer – November 18, 2010

This scenario first started when high school student Blake Robbins was disciplined by the assistant principal at his school for behaving improperly at home. If the first question that comes to your mind is, “Isn’t disciplining children at home the parents responsibility?” then join hundreds of others who feel the same way.

More to the point is how the assistant principal knew that Robbins had misbehaved at home. It seems the evidence came in the form of pictures from a built-in webcam on the laptop he was assigned from school. The outraged Robbins family filed a class-action lawsuit against the school district. The FBI then got involved in case the school had crossed the line and violated any federal wiretap laws. This case gets more controversial yet.

There was a court order issued to preserve the webcam images of all 2,300 school issued laptops. At that point, the Robbins family discovered there were actually over 400 pictures of Robbins in his room and some were even taken while he was half dressed. Evidently, there were thousands of pictures of other school students at home and screenshots of private IM online conversations.

IT staff were monitoring this mass of incoming information and likened it to a mini-soap opera. In other words, the IT administrators found the monitoring had entertainment value. In spite of this somewhat indelicate breach of privacy by using embedded webcams to spy on students at home, the FBI said there was no criminal intent involved. That was an enormous relief to the school district, who then said “mea culpa” and cleaned up behind their mistake to make sure privacy was respected, not breached.

The school district learned their lesson in another way as well; they had to pay out $610,000 to two students who filed lawsuits. Nary a word was said during the settlement about why the school district thought it was necessary to watch students at home. That might make an interesting story. However, in the interests of not prolonging legal action, the school opted to settle out of court and cover legal fees, pay money into a trust fund for Robbins and another student and cover the legal expenses for both.

It was a tough lesson to learn but it ought to have been obvious that having an active webcam embedded in a laptop that no one knew about was not the right thing to be doing.


1) Full statement from the Lower Merion School District board (