when administrators’ heads really need to roll…

October 14, 2010

Apparently, if you spy on students through webcams in computers you gave them for a supposedly academic purpose, then snap thousands of pictures of teens sleeping and even partially undressed, it’ll only cost you a relatively minor $610,000 with about 70% of that sum being spent on legal fees. For a school district that can afford to give its students laptops, this must be a bargain if you don’t count the lawyers gorging themselves in the process. I mean it’s one thing if students were trying to use school property to download porn, or hack into the school’s system to change their grades, but to simply spy on them? That’s not just ridiculous but obscene from a legal and ethical standpoint. Instead of a slap on the wrist, the administrators should’ve been fired. It’s not like invasion of privacy and pervy snapshots of minors aren’t criminal offenses worthy of serious note and could just be waived off if someone says he really didn’t mean to take all those pictures for anything illegal.

But that’s apparently the decision in a lawsuit involving Harrington High School in Pennsylvania, which began when a student was sternly warned by an assistant principal to stop “improper behavior in his bedroom.” The behavior in question was snapped by a spy cam in his computer, one of the over 66,000 pictures of students taken by administrators who claimed that they only activated the cams when a computer was reported stolen or missing, and that the cams were just part of an anti-theft system. Yeah. Makes perfect sense. This certainly explains why the system was used tens of thousands of times to capture students eating candy, or changing their clothes, or sleeping. Surely, if we start digging deep enough, we’ll find a missing or stolen report for just about each and every picture snapped, including the hundreds of the same exact student right? Oh, wait. No, no we won’t because the school just decided it would take pictures on a whim and can’t provide any reasons for doing what it did, even though according to the FBI, they had no criminal intent per se.

I don’t really care about intent in this situation because there’s absolutely no reasonable justification for taking so many inappropriate pictures of minors. What kind of bonehead in the school’s administration could’ve ever possibly thought this was a good idea and why does he or she still have a job instead of facing jail time? Let’s imagine that a manager in a computer repair store installs this kind of software in minors’ laptops and snaps more than 66,000 photos of them, a number of which could be considered borderline child porn. You can bet that he’d be thrown in prison so fast, he’d need medical attention from the friction burns on his posterior after corrections officers hurl him into his cell. The administrators? Declared immune from prosecution after doing almost exactly that and continuing to draw their typical six-figure taxpayer-funded salaries. The parents should be outraged, which I’m sure that many of them are, and demand that heads roll as they keep bombarding the district’s superintendent with call after call on the subject. Really, I can’t understate just how insipid and illegal the administrators’ actions were, and how there’s no excuse for them being immune from prosecution.

Hey, at least they stopped taking secret pictures of students when the media got wind of what they were doing and the lawsuit landed on a judge’s desk so at least they do have enough brainpower to realize they what they did was wrong and if they stood their ground they’d be in even more trouble than they thought they’d be. And at the same time, this fact also shows that they don’t seem to have enough of a moral or ethical compass to get the idea that spying on students in their own homes is illegal and wrong. How people like this are ever put in charge of thousands of teenagers, and who lets them stay there despite their imbecilic decisions, I don’t even want to know. But what I, and I’m sure many others, would really want is to see these people as far away from any position of power in any school system as humanly possible.

[ illustration by Ian Jones ]

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  • Bruce Coulson

    I’m sure a lot of the decision was in those legal documents that we’ll never get to see. Some speculation, though. The district administrators were apparently completely unaware that what they were doing was illegal. (Hence, the lack of criminal intent.) And school administrators often gain a high degree of arrogance, being that in loco parentis grants them a lot of authority. I’m sure that their justification was ‘if the students aren’t doing anything wrong, then there’s no harm; if they are, then we need to know’. And you don’t GET to be the adminstrator of a major school district without a LOT of political pull; all of which was probably used to avoid (justified) consequences. There will be some minor consequences to them, though. Their careers are over; although they get to keep their current positions, there’s no hope of them advancing. They won’t survive doing anything close to this stupid again; they probably burned all their favors just keeping their jobs. And there are certainly rivals and subordinates, circling like sharks, watching for them to make another mistake.

  • Greg Fish

    “The district administrators were apparently completely unaware that what they were doing was illegal.”

    If that’s the case, then the administrators in question are even dumber than they seem. I would think that by now, everybody knows that spying on someone, or as the courts call it, invation of privacy, is illegal. They had a right to install tracking software and a remote webcam, true. They also had a right to use it if the laptops were reported stolen or missing. But they had no right to just spy on students.

    The high school has around 2,000 students. So there was an average of 33 reports of stolen laptops per student somehow requiring them to take up to a thousand pictures of a particular teenager? Methinks the whole lack of criminal intent thing was the FBI’s way of saying that the administrators were brainless enough to think that it’s somehow ok to snap everything and everyone in students’ bedrooms, including borderline child porn by the FBI’s own statements, and because the school is very wealthy, they’re just going to back off and investigate something else rather than get dragged into years of litigation.

    “Their careers are over; although they get to keep their current positions, there’s no hope of them advancing.”

    Let’s hope so, but the very fact that they still have their jobs fills me with doubt.

  • badbass9

    Let’s go back one step and ask about giving high school students a laptop with a webcam and associated software in the first place. A webcam in a school owned laptop? Nobody considered misuse? Sounds like big brother to me. There is ABSOLUTELY no justification for this. The webcams in said laptops could easily be disabled. The administrators were totally unaware that what they were doing was illegal? You’ve got to be kidding. These are the people who oversee the education of our children? No wonder we lag behind the rest of the industrialized world. Greg, they had no right to install the remote webcam. The tracking software, yes. Webcam, no. It should have been disabled. This reminds me of the early ’70s (here I go again), when teachers asked their students to report drug use by their parents. Now the friendly schools supply you with spycams. The largest privacy issues in this country involve computing and the internet. Barely a day goes by without mention of a law suit or decision concerning internet privacy. And these administrators were unaware. I don’t believe that. Now, if we all lived under that rock in Recida, maybe. Not surprisingly, I won’t allow a webcam in my home. Why? I know how to remotely activate one. Anybody with basic hacking skills can do it. I would like to get the info I need on these folks, activate their webcams, and post their activities all over the net. Sounds like a fitting punishment. But, you can bet dollars to donuts they’d scream to high heaven about THEIR privacy rights.

  • Bruce Coulson

    Most modern laptops come equipped with a built-in webcam. Now, the tracking and remote access software does have to be installed. And school administrators really are that arrogant; they’re ‘responsible’ for these students, so they have the right and power to make sure school property is not abused. By whatever means THEY deem appropriate. Students have no real right to privacy, in many administrators’ eyes. (For that matter, the erosion of privacy is so prevalent in the 1st World it’s not a surprising conclusion.) Would a parent be guilty of invasion of privacy if they did the same thing to their own minor children? That’s how these administrators looked at things. The laws didn’t apply to them; they were looking out for the welfare and safety of the students (and school/public property).

    And using the spying software under ANY circumstances would have been legally dubious. (Whereas had they installed a GPS tracker, which simply provides a location, and skipped the camera, all problems could have been avoided.)

  • Greg Fish

    “They had no right to install the remote webcam. The tracking software, yes. Webcam, no. It should have been disabled.”

    To be fair, the remote webcam was supposed to capture an image of whoever stole a laptop and it was part of the anti-theft software. These remote screen grabs are a great tool to find laptop and cell phone thieves and they work.

    The illegal part was turning them on without a report, which is why the school mewed about doing only that, but as I already noted, the number and content of the pics they took is very compelling evidence against that defense.

  • Pierce R. Butler

    Lower Merion School District educrats were also on the verge of wrecking one student’s life with charges of illegal drug use – when it turned out the “pills” he was taking in his bedroom were candies.

    The internal dynamics of US public school administration are quite convoluted, and vary widely from area to area, but seem to very consistently weed out all but a mutually-supporting good-ol’-boy network and their sycophantic underlings. Only once, to my limited knowledge, has there been a widespread and successful improvement campaign: when the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations took the lessons of Sputnik to heart and implemented a major pro-science initiative. (Yes, there have been other federal initiatives which have changed schools nationwide, but anti-drug hysteria and “just say no” anti-sex crusades don’t qualify as improvements.)

  • Bruce Coulson

    Even turning the cameras on, with a report, would be very risky, legally. (btw, further research indicates that perhaps the FBI dropped charges in return for considerable oversight power over the school district.) As far as wrecking anyone lives (besides their own)… Fun fact: as a public school, the district, when engaged in searches, has to play by police rules. Which means searching lockers is acceptable; they’re on school property. Turning the camera on outside of school porperty, without proper warrants? Illegal, which means no case (no matter what they saw; none of it is admissable). Now, had they confined themselves to ‘lo-jack’ tech, simply indicating location of the laptop; no invasion of privacy, no violation.