Federal prosecutors have subpoenaed the Lower Merion School District for documents related to the controversial use of remote-control cameras on students' school-issued computers, The Inquirer has learned.
The grand jury subpoena, delivered yesterday, asked for a broad range of records related to the so-called webcams and the security system that district officials used to activate them, said a lawyer who had been briefed about the matter. He spoke on the condition of anonymity.
School district spokesman Douglas Young said he could not comment last night when asked whether such a subpoena had been received. Philadelphia FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver cited the agency's policy of not confirming or denying any pending investigation.
Word of the subpoena came as the elite suburban school district, through Young, conceded that "notice should have been given" to families that the district's computer system would snap photos of school laptop users - even in children's homes - if the laptops were reported missing or stolen.
School technicians have activated that system 42 times this school year when the district's laptops were reported missing or stolen, Young said. He said parents and students should have been told clearly of the policy in advance.
Young said the district had hired former federal prosecutor Henry E. Hockeimer Jr. to "provide a comprehensive review of past practices and policies, as well as assist us in implementing appropriate improvements."
The district's statements grew out of a lawsuit that has prompted headlines across the country: a Penn Valley family's claim, filed Tuesday in federal court, that Harriton High School's assistant principal had confronted a 15-year-old son with a photo taken by the security system on his school-issued laptop when he was using it at home.
"There was no specific notification given that described the security feature," Young said. "That notice should have been given, and we regret not giving it. That . . . was a significant mistake."
Starting last school year, the district assigned laptops to most of its 2,300 high school students and allowed them to take them home. The initiative was designed to enhance the use of technology by students and to give students who did not have computers at home access to them.
Young said he did not know whether the district had crafted a written policy outlining how the security system was to be used, what would trigger the webcam, and how its findings would be handled.
He said only two "technical department" administrators were able to access the security system, but added: "There is an essential need to clarify the procedures and specify the process of what should happen."
Virginia DiMedio, the district's technology director until she retired last summer, said she recalled no discussions about what to tell families about the security system, and how and when it would be used.
Meanwhile, as federal prosecutors were issuing their subpoena, Montgomery County prosecutors were reviewing allegations in the suit for possible evidence of violations of wiretap or privacy laws.
District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said yesterday: "We're going to be looking into the situation to see if a criminal investigation is warranted."
The suit alleges that in November, the Harriton assistant principal confronted sophomore Blake Robbins with a photo of what school officials saw as the boy's "improper activity" - taken by the webcam of his school-issued laptop in his home.