The Ignorant Righteous v. The Lower Merion School District: The Rush to Judgment

There is a reason why I ceased to support the ACLU after a brief affair with the organization as a college student. Whenever a group operates within a narrow framework that denies the nuance and complexity of our ultimately human lives, it becomes irrelevant. The ACLU was, as expected, one of the first to rush in with an amicus brief in support of Michael and Holly Robbins, whose lawsuit against the Lower Merion School District, alleging improper use of the district's webcam feature on school-issued laptops, through its spyware software, has delighted trigger-happy journalists. The media, from the Philadelphia Inquirer to the BBC and every single web-tech blog and newsfeed has been opining about the case, and, more often than not, been more than happy to add that slippery little "but" to the end of that hypocritical sentence, "We don't have all the facts," before vilifying the entire district. It was only a matter of time before the FBI came in; an unnecessary escalation, clearly, considering the opinion written by noted legal expert Orin Kerr for the legal blog, Volokh Conspiracy ( February 18th, 2010)

The Lower Merion School District is nationally known for its academic achievement, some of which is due to its outstanding facilities (it is one of the wealthiest in the nation and both high schools are brand new this year), but most of which is due to its cadre of exceptionally dedicated parents and teachers and staff who consider the raising of children to be a team-effort. To those who say that the laptop initiative was just another example of wealth trumping prudence, let me say that the entire state of Maine has a similar laptop program and it has nowhere near the wealth of this one district. The program, in both parts of the country, was initiated by intelligent people who felt that familiarity with and access to a personal laptop would give their students the ability to access a world of digitally communicated information and that it would significantly enhance their educational experience. Those people also presumed some degree of honor on the part of students and their parents.

In the case as it is described in the complaint, we are presented with vague allegations leaving much to inference. Nowhere does it state basic facts like who took the alleged photo, what it showed or where the school district saw it, or whether the feature was activated because the computer was reported lost or whether there was a deliberate attempt to spy on a student in legal possession of a computer. Rather it omits these vital facts with bearing on the merits of the case, and jumps to inferring cyber spying with a view toward pedophilia.

In the larger context, we have a student whose school record and whose previous use (or abuse, if such there was), of the loaner laptops, are not part of the discussion, even if such information has a bearing on the veracity of the statements made by him and his parents and may even significantly undercut the entire basis of the allegations. Even more baffling is the fact that there is now a Federal gag order on the school district which prevents any administrator from speaking about any aspect of this case, or laptops, without prior consultation with the lawyer for the plaintiffs. According to that lawyer, Mark S. Hartzman, quoted in the Philadelphia Inquirer (February 23rd, 2010), says he "wanted to make sure the district didn't spread falsehoods about his client, 15-year-old Blake Robbins." He also mentioned that he wanted "a fair opportunity to talk to our clients," meaning other students and parents who might have been affected by the laptop-security program." And yet, no other district parent or student is named in the complaint, and neither parents nor students have rallied en masse behind this suit, quite the contrary; in a matter of hours, nearly 500 rallied, publicly, behind the school district. Besides, is it fair, for anybody anywhere, including this family or their lawyer, to be free to spread any rumor they liked about this school district from neighborhood conversations to national TV? Even though some of the most hard-hitting statements made in the case are contradicted by what is now common knowledge?

Here is something I understand: all students in the school district were aware of the existence of the webcam feature on their computers as well as the district's laptop recovery capability; the only oversight that is indisputable is that the district did not require written consent specific to this aspect of the program. Here's another: There were eighteen computers recovered after 42 separate instances of activating the recovery software in a district with more than 2000 computers out on loan. And a third: there were noofficial complaints made to the district about the existence of this software, or about the methods used to recover those lost computers, until one student went, without any discussion, from being asked, as far back as November 11, 2009, about his possible involvement in activities prohibited by the school -- after a snapshot was allegedly taken of him on a laptop that, it is alleged, had been reported missing -- to a class action lawsuit in February.

As a foreigner, I could say, "Ah, America." If such an allegation was made against a child in Sri Lanka, the first response of the parents would be to sit him or her down and obtain the cold hard truth. The next response would be to speak to his or her teacher. The third would be to speak to a principal. There the matter would, in all probability, end, but if it did not, there might be a hue and cry at the parent-teacher meeting, or the alumni meeting. In a very rare instance, a newspaper might be involved.

I could say that, but I am not just a foreigner looking in. I am the parent of three daughters within this school system. As such, I am both sad and furious because I know that sanity is not the particular purview of Sri Lankans and that there are thousands of American parents who feel exactly as I do. I am sad that a school district with all the accomplishments for which it could be recognized is now being made synonymous with perverse actions and furious that those are actions which have gone from rumor to fact without any print or audio or visual media person stopping to take stock of the real facts of the case, or the glaring omissions in the complaint, or the back-story. I am sad that students within the district have been subject to personal attacks and insults from people outside the district, in public, for being part of this district, and sad that they are being made to feel ashamed of schools in which they have always felt the greatest pride, and with justifiable cause. I am sad that even in this enclave of privilege, there are parents who feel that there is more to gain from lawsuits -- the Robbins' involvement with the Montgomery County court system, albeit not always voluntary, is a matter of public record -- than there is to be gained from working in partnership with school officials and teachers or, at the very least, being considerate of the community that has been asked to support the unfolding of their son's childhood alongside that of their own children.

If this district were to file counter-suits against every person who dropped the term "alleged" from their comments, blogs, news articles and other rants, it could probably rebuild all eight elementary and middle schools from the ground up again. But it won't, and I am glad since, as guardians of our children, the objective is to teach them not merely academic skills but also moral behavior with regard to the acquisition of wealth; eschewing civil dialogue in favor of lawsuits is not the lesson it wishes to impart. I join with other parents in this district to stand behind the school officials who have strived, consistently, to help our children achieve their highest potential as human beings. We're still waiting for the national media to take an interest in our version of this tale but, to go by the hard-hitting New Yorker piece 'Non-Stop News,' (New Yorker, 1/25/10), when media men such as Peter Baker of the NYT make statements such as this, "We are, collectively, much like eight-year-olds chasing a soccer ball...instead of finding ways of creating fresh, original, high-impact journalism, we're way to eager to chase the same story everyone else is chasing, which is too often the easy story and too often the simplistic story -- and too often the story that misses what's going on," I anticipate we'll be waiting a good long time.

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