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Harriton High School Spycam Case, Privacy, and the Constitution


Before we examine the explosive Harriton High Spycam case, it is first pertinent to understand how the courts feel about student rights in school. The rights of free speech, free press, free association, and freedom from unwarranted search and seizure are points of contention between school administrators and students, and have been for decades.Blake Robbins was one of the many high school students at Harriton High who were victims of Spycam. Photo:http://media.komonews.com/images/100225_Blake_Robbins.jpg

The courts have consistently ruled that students in school do not have the same guarantees against “unreasonable searches and seizures” as adults. One of the most basic reasons is known as  loco parentis. This Latin phrase means that while a student is in the custody of a school, the school can and often should act as a parent. In this duty of the school, many decisions can be made that are outside the normal governmental purview. The other basic reason why students generally have less rights than adults has to do with the goal of school — to educate. If an act of a student can interfere with the educational process, that act may, in many cases, be suppressed in order to maintain a safe learning environment for all students attending the school.

Although students do not have all of the constitutional protections as adults, they are not stripped of their constitutional rights completely. In Tinker v Des Moines, the Supreme Court ruled that students wearing black armbands to protest the Vietnam War could not be forced to remove the armbands by school officials just because such speech was unpopular with administration. As written in Tinker, "It can hardly be argued that students shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate."  So, if a school official wants to search their belongings, he or she must have reasonable suspicion that the search will show that a student is breaking the law or a school rule.

Now that we have a basic understanding of the rights of students, we can turn our attention to the Harriton High Spycam  case. Originally, the school officials in Lower Merion School District claimed that the technology department activated the tracking software in order to recover stolen laptops; apparently 42 were missing from the district this year. I do not understand the need for using a laptop’s camera to take pictures in order to discern the location of stolen laptops, when there is GPS technology available that could be utilized instead to deter theft of such devices. The use a GPS device would be certainly less intrusive than taking pictures of a student; therefore, a student’s “expectation of privacy” is going to be maintained in the eyes of court and public opinion.

A new motion filed late last week by a student's parents contends the Pennsylvania school district captured thousands of images of students without their knowledge via software on their school-supplied laptops.

When the case broke in the winter, school officials said only a handful of images had been taken, and only in response to reports of stolen laptops. But the new motion also mentions that web site visits and online chats were monitored, in addition to thousands of pictured being taken. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Lower Merion School District employees activated the web cameras and tracking software on laptops they gave to high school students about 80 times in the past two school years, snapping nearly 56,000 images that included photos of students, pictures inside their homes, and copies of the programs or files running on their screens.

Sophomore Blake Robbins  is suing the district. He alleges wiretap and privacy violations and that the district took pictures of him sleeping in bed and half-dressed. All of these charges greatly supports the plaintiffs, the Robbins family, and their case against the school district. The Pennsylvania chapter of the ACLU has also pledged support for the Robbins family. Lower Merion School District lawyer Henry Hockeimer admits in an internal investigation that students likely were photographed inside their homes. He, however, says none of the images appear inappropriate. Lower Merion has recently stated that they will soon reveal the full extent of the use of their “spy cam” technology.

I realize that one should never cast judgment about a case before all of the evidence is exposed and revealed, but it definitely appears that the Lower Merion School District was in the wrong and violated the privacy rights of its many students during the last two years. True, the administration was trying to prevent behavior that violated school rules by activating the tracking technology, but this is a huge stretch of logical reasoning to suggest that taking pictures of half-naked students sleeping in their beds was ultimately needed to maintain a “safe learning environment”. That’s nuts.

I predict that the Lower Merion School District will gain some fame by becoming a significant entry in the annuals of student privacy rights case law, but will lose significant amounts of credibility as a consequence of this case—the Lower Merion School District violated the rights of countless students in order to play the part of an over protective Big Brother.

Contact Erik Uliasz at euliasz@wyoarea.org

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