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Secret 'bus cams' challenged in court

Pennsylvania court deals setback to a class-action lawsuit that challenges school bus surveillance cameras.

Officials in the Twin Valley School District, located in the heart of Pennsylvania's countryside, thought they had devised a novel way to reduce school bus disruptions by unruly students.

By October 2001, the school district near Reading, Pa., had secretly installed a pair of "bus cams" behind one-way mirrors that made audio and video recordings of what took place while students were being shuttled to and from school.

Now a Pennsylvania court has thrown a roadblock up against a lawsuit challenging the surreptitious recordings. In a decision last week, the Commonwealth Court rejected an attempt by a former student to file a class-action lawsuit claiming that the school district had violated her privacy rights.

Judge Jess Jiuliante wrote that former student Morgan Keppley did not meet the requirements for a class-action lawsuit. For one thing, Jiuliante said, it would be too difficult to determine "the location of each particular student on the bus in relation to the audio equipment and whether each student exhibited an expectation of privacy and whether that expectation was reasonable."

Also, Jiuliante wrote, "it is clear that (Keppley) lacks the financial resources to assure that the interests of the (class-action suit) will not be harmed and has no agreements in place to assist her in financing the action."

School officials testified that they decided to obtain the secret bus cams after a fight took place between a bus driver and a student.

But eventually, they acknowledged, footage from the cameras became used in disciplinary proceedings when reports of foul language were received. Lyle Bliss, a retired high school principal, said that he would request tapes to justify punishments. Keppley, who filed the lawsuit, claimed that footage of her conversations was unlawfully used against her and that she should have enjoyed a reasonable expectation of privacy while on the school bus.

Under Pennsylvania law, someone is guilty of a felony if he or she "intentionally intercepts, endeavors to intercept, or procures any other person to intercept or endeavor to intercept any wire, electronic or oral communication."