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When you Sue a School, Does Anyone Win?

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If you've been following the news lately, you may have come across a story where a Pennsylvania school system has been allegedly spying on their students. The Rosemont's Harriton High School's computers included software that would allow them to turn on the webcam whenever they wanted. This would effectively allow them to spy on students in the privacy of their own home. This came to light when the school allegedly informed student Blake Robbins' parents that he had been selling drugs and even showed a still photograph as evidence. The Robbins' family claims these accusations are false. You can read more details here or watch this video:

CNET noted that the school system could be sued for violating a number of laws/regulations such as, "the Fourth Amendment, the Electronic Communication Privacy Act, the Computer Fraud Abuse Act, the Stored Communications Act, Section 1983 of the Civil Rights Act, the Pennsylvania Wiretapping and Electronic Surveillance Act, and Pennsylvania common law." They didn't even get into the potential child pornography charges that could potentially come from the girl who said that she shower with her laptop open to listen to music (if they are shown to have violated that).

I find the story interesting on many levels. Having a Computer Science degree and working in the technology industry for the past decade, I usually stay on top of technology happenings. It never occurred to me that a web cam could be used in a nefarious way like this. Take it a step further and imagine a virus that does the same thing. Yikes!

The biggest question for me from a financial perspective is, "What if the school is found guilty of all these violations?" The damages could be millions and spread across numerous families. On the outset it would seem that justice would be served and everyone could just move on. However, the community would be left with a bankrupt school system. That typically means raised taxes. So others in the town would have to pick up the pieces. This leads me to think, the ones who "win" could be the lawyers. It might even be in the community's best interest to root for the school as outlandish as it sounds.

Posted on February 22, 2010.

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21 Responses to “When you Sue a School, Does Anyone Win?”

  1. If this is true … then the people that win are the kids – in this district and others – who don’t have their privacy violated.

    Unfortunately, the most effective way to discourage this is via punitive damages.

  2. Nicolas says:

    I think that behind the financial question is a legal one. Are the awards granted by the courts too big? Realistically, what purpose would a multi-million award serve in this case?

    Should the school be found liable, the amount should be enough to compensate the plaintiffs and discourage unlawful violation of privacy. It should not make the plaintiffs rich at the expense of the school system.

    Keeping this in mind, there are other ways to investigate potential pushers.

    Let’s see what happens.

  3. I don’t think the school district should be bankrupted, but this kind of activity needs to be stopped immediately and as the above poster mentioned, money talks.

    My opinion is that those who allowed the software to be installed and utilized in this way be terminated immediately.

    The thought of my high school principal being able to see into my home without my knowledge is outrageous.

  4. Evan says:


    I couldn’t agree with more. There is a winner…and the winner is justice. The school can not just ignore the rights provided to you by both the State and Federal Constitutional (I am assuming the state part since I am not familiar with PA’s constitution lol) as well as statute.

    As far as dollars and cents at this point sometimes it must be ignored, just like when a State is sued or even the Federal gov’t. The moment we let the ends justify the means is the moment liberty and freedom dies.

  5. Keith Morris says:

    I agree with the commenters above. I’m a technology and social media evangelist, but this is beyond outrageous.

  6. Evan says:

    ooops! I meant disagree with you lol

  7. Sean says:

    From the information that I have on this story (and I have read my fare share of articles surrounding this issue) the school district seems to very much be in the wrong here. If that means being federally sued for millions, so be it as they allegedly violated many a federal laws here and in a huge way and deserved to be punished in a fair and legal manner.

    Now if I were a tax payer in the affected town(s) and I knew a federal lawsuit was pending that could potentially cost the school district and town millions (and possibly raise my taxes), I would want some head to roll…a.k.a. who was responsible for implementing and carrying out these policies and to call for their immediate removal from their positions. If some deal would be worked out between the plaintiff and defense that in exchange for lower punitive damages (millions of $$$) that in stead the removal of these people from their positions, than more power to them. But to say that the town should “root for the school to win” just to make it fiscally better for the town IS outlandish.

    No ones constitutional and legal rights should ever be compromised in this country just on account of saving money, no matter how frugal one may be. Evan said it best in his above post, “There is a winner…and the winner is justice.”

    Just my 2 cents.
    PS…I am long time follower of your blog, keep up the good work.

  8. E.D. says:

    Sorry, but I’m going for the families on this one. The only thing that appears to stop egregious abuse of power by those in authority is a huge lawsuit.

    I’m also hoping there are criminal charges for the people involved.

    Go justice!

  9. jim says:

    This is a tricky one. If you limit lawsuits against schools or other similar government bodies then you limit the financial risk the schools have. That seems good since the school is paid for with our tax dollars. But if you limit lawsuits then you almost give schools a free ticket to break laws, abuse power and otherwise do bad things. Where is the proper balance? Surely schools who abuse their powers should face criminal and civil punishments. Theres no free ticket to break the laws so we can save our schools some cash.

    On the other hand you don’t want lawsuits to get out of control. Generally lawsuits are not out of control. (no matter what the media tells you). Frivilous lawsuits are routinely dismissed by judges without going to trial.

    Basically this is up to the courts to decide.
    But schools get no “free pass”.

    THis particular case is odd. Seems to me straight forward invasion of privacy but the school does own the computers. I also suspect that the media reports are leaving out some key details (as usual). In any case its for the courts to decide. I’m going to guess that the school won’t lose millions, and 1-2 employees will get fired. And we probably won’t hear about that from the media. End result may be no more free computer use for the kids in question. Cause the school won’t want to take any risks with the computers after that.

    A negative consequence of lawsuits against schools is that school administrators end up making policy that is defensive against lawsuits in nature. The people running the school can’t risk losing a giant lawsuit so they take no risks. That often means crazy zero tolerance style policies. This is why kids can’t hug each other in schools and bringing aspirin to school gets you suspended.

  10. Lazy Man says:

    I don’t think owning the computers is that relevant. If it was disclosed as a condition of the computer lending, then it’s certainly more in the school’s favor.

  11. Evan says:

    “If it was disclosed as a condition of the computer lending, then it’s certainly more in the school’s favor.”

    Who did they disclose it to? The 15 year old female they spied on?

    This post actually got The Wife into a fight last night LOL. She agreed with you and basically relied on the ends justify the means.

  12. Lazy Man says:

    It doesn’t look like it was disclosed. I was making a hypothetical point in response to Jim’s point.

    I don’t know how the Wife agreed with me, as I don’t think I took a stance. I certainly didn’t think I implied that the school was in the right to install the software. I was simply trying to make a point that winning a lawsuit in this case isn’t really a “win”.

  13. jim says:

    Just to be clear: I certainly don’t think schools should be spying on students in their own homes.

    I’m not sure if ownership of the laptop would allow for spying in someones home. But ownership of the laptop *could* play a part in the lawsuit. Its not the students laptop so they don’t have 100% say on what can be done with that laptop. The school gets to say what happens with that laptop since the school owns it. If they chose to put security features on the laptop then thats OK since they own the laptop.

    Employers have legal rights to read email on work computers cause they own the computers and are paying for your time. I think that *might* act as a precedent here.

    The school denies that they spied on the kids. Several kids claim their webcam light came on randomly. Maybe the school admins indiscriminately trampled all over student privacy routinely or maybe a 14 year old kid made bogus accusations after getting caught red handed with drugs. I could easily believe either.

    I’m not a lawyer and I’m mostly thinking out loud here.

  14. Just hypothetically speaking here, but if I was doing drugs in my own home and the school “caught” me through the laptop’s webcam, I don’t think that would be admissible in court.

    Lazy Man, your argument that the school has a right to see what content is stored on their property is sound. However, I don’t see how it could apply to things OUTSIDE of the laptop, like its surroundings.

  15. This is the part that I found the most strange:

    “The district claims each activation was merely an attempt to locate a stolen or missing laptop.”

    Um, there are other – and better – ways to do this. This seems like BS.

  16. Lazy Man says:


    Two thoughts:
    1) I’m going to put out an extreme example just to prove a point. If the school put dynamite in their laptop and remotely detinated it killing the students, would you still say it was their laptop to do with what they wanted? What if the school simply said that they did it to destroy sensative data on their computer? It seems to me that ownership does not give you the privilege to harm people. Invasion of the expectation to privacy is a harm (but obviously not as bad as killing someone).

    2) While it may be the school’s computer. Activating it remotely presumably used the students’ Internet connection without permission. So if we are playing the ownership card, the students’ win that fight as well.

    Ryan, I don’t think I claimed that the school as a right to what content is stored on their computer. Maybe I was sleep typing somewhere?

  17. And in defense of the lawyers (whoa, that sounds weird) they take a lot of these types of cases on contigency basis. So for every case where they cash in and claim a good chunk of a verdict, there are other hard fought cases that they lose and get exactly zero compensation – after incurring considerable costs.

    It’s a bit of a catch 22. If they refused to work on contingency and only charged by the hour, a lot of people would be unable to afford a lawsuit where their rights are infringed. From a social perspective, this would probably be a bad thing. And since they do work on contingency, they need to be overpaid on some cases to offset the cases where they get nothing.

    OK, that’s the last good thing I’ll say about lawyers for a decade or so :)

  18. Evan says:

    Lazy Man,

    Sorry if I assumed where you feel on the heated topic.

    I think applying the private entity corporation rules and cases to this case would be a very big stretch. Its been a while since my Con Law Classes (which were trying at best since I OFTEN disagreed with the profs and the more liberal student body) but I remember some cases where schools were held to a higher standard in terms of protecting one’s liberties because they are a public entity.

  19. jim says:

    My point is that ownership of the computer is relevant. Obviously ownership doesn’t give you a license to break laws however you want. But ownership of the computer IS relevant. Turning on the webcam on a laptop you own is not exactly the same as breaking into someones home and planting a bug. So ownership of the laptop is relevant.

    Regardless if the school admins were intentionally playing peeping tom on the students in the students private homes then yes that should be against the law in some way and a clear violation of privacy. On the other hand if the school was spying on students via the webcam on school grounds then I think that would likely be perfectly legal.

    I think another important point : The school doesn’t know where the laptop is until they activate the security tracking.

    Again, I’m no lawyer, I seriously doubt the media has reported half the relevant facts of the case and its really up to the courts to decide.

    I’m definitely not saying I think the school should have done this. I don’t want to be arguing in circles here over details of the law when we don’t even know the facts for certain.

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