Today has been a rough day for the already embattled Lower Merion School District, the well-to-do suburban Philadelphia school district accused of spying on students in their own homes through school-issued, webcam-enabled laptop computers.
First, Friday morning brought with it a report in The Philadelphia Inquirer that, despite repeated assertions to the contrary by the district, the program designed to remotely access the cameras on the laptops reported lost or stolen had indeed captured “a substantial number of webcam photos” of a number of different students, and that school district officials marveled over e-mail at the access they had to students, saying that it was like “a little LMSD soap opera” and confessing things like “I love it.” In another Inquirer piece, attorney Mark Haltzman–counsel for Blake Robbins, the Harriton High School student who brought the initial lawsuit back in February–insisted that “thousands of webcam pictures and screen shots have been taken of numerous other students in their homes.”
Then, late Friday afternoon, the school district and district officials were sued again in Federal Court in Philadelphia, this time the complaint being filed by Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Company, an insurer of Lower Merion School District seeking a declaratory judgment that due to the nature of the underlying controversy it had no duty or obligation to defend or indemnify the district with regard to the underlying action filed by Robbins in February.
It was because of my access at the Eastern District of Pennsylvania that I was able to obtain the complaint before anybody else and break the laptop spying story back on February 17, and while this afternoon I was able to see the complaint, it became available so late in the day that I only had a moment to glance at it, and did not have the opportunity to make a copy. For the full text of the complaint, case number 2:10cv01707, you’ll have to check back at America’s Right on Monday afternoon. (UPDATE: It’s Monday afternoon — to see the full text, click HERE.)
Regardless, declaratory judgment actions are nothing groundbreaking. In a way, this is not unlike a homeowner’s insurance provider looking to skirt payment of benefits for that unfortunate homeowner somewhere in the midwest who caught Wednesday night’s fireball in their living room on grounds that meteorite strikes are excluded from policy coverage. In this case, however, it is the school district’s insurer looking to avoid defense costs associated with the Robbins’ lawsuit.
Of course, because my time with the filing was limited, I’m only guessing at the specifics. I’m guessing that Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Company had issued a general commercial liability policy to the school district, and that the insurance company was seeking judgment that legal actions arising from the invasion of students’ privacy through the remote access of school-issued laptops were beyond the scope of the policy’s personal injury provisions and, therefore, the insurance company had no obligation to pay defense costs. Again, I cannot reiterate enough that it’s just a guess, albeit a guess informed by eight years of looking at hundreds of thousands of civil filings.
Regardless, it only goes to show that this situation is rapidly unraveling for school district officials. While many parents of students at Lower Merion and Harriton High Schools are surprisingly supportive of the administration and have urged the Robbins family to drop the lawsuit, I cannot help but wonder if their opinions will change once some are shown photos of their own children in various stages of life–and undress, for that matter–in their own bedrooms within their own homes.
Thousands of images. Multiple students. School district officials gossiping about the access as though it were their own twisted version of “All My Children.” And now, ancillary actions like the one filed by Graphic Arts Mutual. It’s shaping up to be a very interesting summer for the folks in Lower Merion.