Originally published in The Guardian
There’s a science fiction trope where aliens do something their unearthly mindset considers virtuous, but anyone with normal human emotions finds horrifying: “Smile, Earthlings! When we release our genetically engineered virus, you’ll only be troubled by the mating urge once per season – hey, why are you stopping us?” So, if someone says to a teenager’s parent, “I spy on your child when he’s home alone, and saw something disturbing – hey, why are you mad at me?” such confusion is understandable, coming from intergalactic reptile overlords.
But humans should know better, especially adult human school administrators paid six-figure salaries to oversee young teens, hence the huge scandal last February when Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion School District admitted using remote webcams to surreptitiously observe high school students at home. From a voyeur’s perspective, it was a pretty sweet setup: the webcams were in laptops issued to all students, who were required to use them for certain school obligations.
At first, the school insisted it only activated webcams on laptops reported lost or stolen; superintendent Christopher McGinley posted an online statement assuring everybody: “The district never activated the security feature for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever.”
Wrong. The district actually took thousands of photos, some of students sleeping, or in various states of undress. School authorities found the webcam footage highly entertaining; in one email exchange, a staffer referred to it as “like a little [Lower Merion School District] soap opera”.
Most creepy-voyeur stories are discovered accidentally, after victims stumble upon proof of their surveillance. That’s because most voyeurs understand the key principle of “I must keep my deviant actions secret.” Lower Merion assistant principal Lindy Matsko lacked that insight; this story came out when Matsko saw a photo of student Blake Robbins eating candy, assumed it was drugs, and cited the picture as evidence to discipline Robbins for “improper behaviour in the home”. Robbins and his parents sued.
The case was resolved – more or less – last week, when the school district agreed to pay out a $610,000 settlement: $175,000 for Robbins, $10,000 for another student, the rest to their lawyer. So what happened to the school administrators, to McGinley, Matsko and the others who spied on teens at home, then lied about the extent of it?
Nothing. No jobs lost and no financial consequences, either – they’re not responsible for the $610,000 payout. The municipal insurer will cover it, then charge higher premiums to Lower Merion taxpayers. The same people whose rights were violated will foot the bill for those very violations.
Is anyone reading this a student in Lower Merion? If so, remember: you are still obligated to show respectful deference to Principal Matsko, Superintendent McGinley and all the other grownups at your school – even the ones who got their jollies peeping at you while you slept. You teenagers might be justified in thinking, “I don’t feel safe around middle-aged people who think it’s OK to spy on me and my friends. Why is this allowed?”. But don’t say that where administrators can hear you, or you’ll get detention for defying their authority.