Insurer Won’t Pay Legal Costs in Pennsylvania Webcam Spying

April 26, 2010

An insurance company is balking at paying legal costs for a suburban Philadelphia school district accused of spying on students through laptop webcams.

Meanwhile, a lawyer for a student suing the Lower Merion School District said the two sides met for several hours Wednesday but are far from reaching a settlement. Sophomore Blake Robbins charges that the district invaded his privacy when it remotely activated a webcam to take photographs of him at home, sometimes when he was in bed or partially undressed.

“No settlement can take place until the full scope of the spying on Blake and the other students is fully known,” lawyer Mark Haltzman told The Associated Press on Thursday.

The district admits it secretly captured at least 56,000 images through the remote tracking program, but said it did so only to locate lost or stolen laptops. More than half of that total came in a search for six laptops stolen from a school gym. The tracking program was left on for months, and helped identify a suspect who was later prosecuted.

The school district did not have any immediate comment Thursday on the status of negotiations. Spokesman Doug Young said the insurance case has been referred to lawyers.

In its suit, Graphic Arts Mutual Insurance Company said that costs stemming from the Robbins lawsuit are not covered under its personal injury policy with the district.

The insurance company’s stance, if upheld, could leave the district responsible for litigation and any settlement costs.

The district has admitted its policies about when to turn the software on and off were lax at best. In five cases, the program was left on long after students reported they had found their school-issued laptops.

At a school board meeting this week, school district lawyer Henry Hockeimer said there was no intentional wrongdoing by the district, “but clearly those trackings should have been turned off earlier.”

Robbins argues that he never reported his computer missing, and doesn’t understood why the program was activated.

In a court filing, technology coordinator Carol Cafiero argues that Robbins had damaged or destroyed two other school laptops, and failed to pay the required $55 insurance fee on the one he had. He therefore had no right to bring the laptop home, or any expectation of privacy, her lawyer wrote.

The Robbinses, in their lawsuit, have zeroed in on Cafiero’s actions, accusing her of being a possible “voyeur” and demanding the right to inspect her home computer to see if she moved any of the student images to it.

Cafiero _ one of two employees authorized to activate the tracking program _ refused to answer their lawyer’s questions at her deposition in the civil suit, invoking her Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination. However, her lawyer said she cooperated in a “cordial” two-hour meeting Tuesday with FBI agents. The FBI, which is investigating whether the district violated federal wiretap laws, did not ask for her personal computer, he said.

“If she did anything wrong, don’t you think they would want it?” lawyer Charles Mandracchia said Thursday. “I feel comfortable that she’s not a target (of the investigation) because she hasn’t done anything.”

Cafiero, now on paid leave from her $105,000-a-year job, “vehemently denies” downloading any pictures of students, he said in a court filing this week.

“Mrs. Cafiero is not a voyeur,” the filing states. “This scandalous, malicious and abusive attack on Mrs. Cafiero’s character, in essence labeling her a sexual deviant, is false, outrageous and without any basis.”

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