A Pennsylvania school district agreed to pay $610,000 to settle lawsuits filed by families of two students who the school district photographed in their homes using webcams on school district issued laptops.
The school district issued laptops equipped with a technology to assist in locating lost or stolen laptops. The materials the school district provided to students when they received the laptops did not notify students that the school could remotely activate the embedded webcam and obtain images of anyone or anything in range of the webcam. School officials used the webcam to record images of students suspected of misconduct. One plaintiff, a student in the school district, was photographed secretly by school officials using the webcam on the student’s district-issued laptop 400 times in a two-week period and accused of using drugs based on images of him taking pills. The student claimed he was eating candy.
The families of this student and another similarly photographed student filed lawsuits against the school district. The school district agreed to a settlement that included $425,000 for attorneys’ fees and another $185,000 to establish trusts for the plaintiff students. The school board released a statement indicating that the settlement with the families allowed the school district to move forward in a way that is most sensitive for students, taxpayers and the school community.
Students are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures conducted by school districts. New technology may raise questions about students’ rights. To mitigate the risk of litigation in such cases, administrators should adhere to school policy when conducting searches, and seek legal advice in situations that are not clearly covered by such policy.