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School district settles Webcam privacy case

The Philadelphia district sued for remotely and secretly taking pictures of students at home via Webcams on school-issued laptops agrees to pay $610,000 to settle suits.

The Philadelphia-area school district sued for remotely and secretly taking pictures of students at home via laptop Webcams has agreed to pay $610,000 to settle the lawsuits.

The Lower Merion School District's board of directors said in a statement today that it will pay $175,000 to plaintiff Blake Robbins and $10,000 to plaintiff Jalil Hassan. An additional $425,000 will be paid out to cover the plaintiffs' legal fees.

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"We recognize that in this case, a lengthy, costly trial would benefit no one," the district said. "It would have been an unfair distraction for our students and staff, and it would have cost taxpayers additional dollars that are better devoted to education. We also wanted to be sensitive to the welfare of the student involved in the the case, given the possible ramifications of what would have been a highly publicized trial."

Earlier this year, lawyers for high-school student Robbins and his family sued the district, saying the 15-year-old had been photographed without his knowledge. In a later motion, they said thousands of shots had been taken, including "pictures of Blake partially undressed and of Blake sleeping." They also said images of visited Web sites and of instant messaging exchanges had been recorded. Hassan also sued, and the incident sparked an investigation by local law enforcement agencies and the FBI.

The district admitted that Webcams had been activated but said the remote photo-taking function had been put in place as a way of tracking stolen laptops. A judge eventually ruled that there was no evidence to justify criminal charges.

In August, the district revised its laptop policy to "strictly prohibit remote monitoring...of any kind, including activation of Webcams, screenshots, audio, and video."