Harriton High School lies about 20 miles outside of Philadelphia in Bryn Mawr, Pa. Part of the Lower Merion School District, it is a relatively small high school with a relatively big problem on its hands.
Interestingly enough, Harriton issues laptop computers to some students for use at home. According to district spokesman Doug Young, those laptops started disappearing at an alarming rate, reportedly 42 laptops during a 14-month period. While that certainly is a problem, that's not the big problem at Harriton.
The big problem started when school officials gave the nod to implement a loss-prevention strategy. The strategy included the remote activation of Web cams on the laptops. Things went downhill very quickly for the Lower Merion School District.
One of the students issued a laptop, Blake Robbins, was disciplined last November by an assistant principal for a "behavior issue" at home. Come again. That's correct; the assistant principal made the charge and then backed it up with a photo or two that allegedly, and secretly, was taken by the Web cam on Robbins' school-issued laptop.
When I heard about this story my first thought was "What were they thinking?" Remote activation of a Web cam is a legitimate part of a loss-prevention strategy. If someone steals a laptop and powers it on, the real owner has a chance at recovery by activating the Web cam and using the images for recovery purposes. But spying on school-age minors in the privacy of their homes without consent or knowledge? That's just plain stupid.
The story is far from over as Blake's parents have filed a class action suit on behalf of other district families seeking unspecified damages. The district plans to defend the action and, for the time being, has deactivated the Web cam feature.
Ron Poland is a professor in the Computer Information Systems AAS program at Clinton Community College. Poland is certified in computer repair and networking by the Computer Technology Industry Association (CompTIA). He is also a Cisco certified network assistant. Questions may be sent to him via e-mail at email@example.com.