No, Public Schools Aren’t Licensed Spy Agencies

You may remember back in February when I wrote about an emerging controversy in Pennsylvania involving the Lower Merion School District. The district, like many others in the U.S., made laptop computers available to its students. If they paid for some insurance, they were permitted to take the laptops home. This is all quite innocuous, until you found out about the student who had been spied on by the school and punished for something they caught him doing at home. Yes, the school was turning on the laptop webcams and taking pictures of students without their or their parents’ knowledge.

The school claimed at the time that it only activated the webcams when a laptop was reported stolen, but that was clearly untrue and the factual discrepancy was never explained. Why was the webcam used on a student who’s laptop had not been stolen? Why were those photos reviewed by the school? Why did photos of a student taken at his home lead to disciplinary action at his school?

During the legal proceedings, a lot of new information came out. The student who’s family brought the issue to court had been photographed more than 400 times without his or his parents’ consent. The school had taken thousands of photos from other students’ laptops. The school had taken screenshots’ of students’ private instant messaging conversations. Photos that were taken and retained by the school included some photos of students partially undressed (likely assuming the nearby laptop would not be taking pictures of them)—something that, in any other universe, would be considered child pornography, but is apparently a-okay if a school does it.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation looked into the matter and, inexplicably, determined that federal wiretap and child pornography laws had not been violated (which really makes me question the FBI’s institutional sanity, since this is clearly a violation of both), but some of the families affected pursued civil complaints against the school system. Likely fearing that they would lose (and I’m sure they would’ve), the Lower Merion School District chose to settle out of court. While I am disappointed that the school district chose not to let the legal system run its course and rip them to well-deserved shreds, at least this debacle has cost them over $600,000.

Maybe this will send a message to Lower Merion and countless other school systems across the United States: you are not parents, you are not dictators, and you are not a licensed spy agency. Start teaching. Stop trying to be Big Brother, the CIA, parents, and pedophiles all rolled into one.

Scott Bradford is a writer and technologist who has been putting his opinions online since 1995. He believes in three inviolable human rights: life, liberty, and property. He is a Catholic Christian who worships the trinitarian God described in the Nicene Creed. Scott is a husband, nerd, pet lover, and AMC/Jeep enthusiast with a B.S. degree in public administration from George Mason University.