3
Mar
2010

It seems some parents in the Lower Merion School District aren’t too happy about the class action lawsuit that has been filed over the supposed webcam spying case, and they plan to do something about it.

For the past two weeks I’ve been covering the case against the Lower Merion School District over the situation with the webcams parents had not been notified could spy on their children.  While the class action lawsuit filed by Blake Robbins is still being certified, parents of several hundred students are moving for it to be dismissed due to the costs that will be incurred by the school district, which is funded by their tax dollars.

To this end, the LMSD Parents have set up a Web site for parents to sign a petition to get the suit stopped.  According to Philly.com, the parents held a strategy meeting last night at the Narberth Borough Hall that was open only to parents of students who had been issued a laptop by the school district.

Apparently the parents discussed various ways to block the suit reaching class action lawsuit, and one parent even went so far as to say the Robbins family should just move to another school district.

While I could somewhat see the point of the families, they lost me at the point they refused permission to Mark Haltzman, the attorney for the Robbins family, to attend the meeting to explain their side of the situation.

Why was he denied permission to attend?  Are they not concerned with hearing both sides of the situation?  Mr. Haltzman told the press he wanted to explain how at least an independent party needs to be brought in to investigate to what extent the student’s privacy rights had been violated, but apparently these parents aren’t concerned with this.

As I said, I could see the parent’s side for a bit, but then it became obvious this is a situation of, “Oh, well, it wasn’t my kid, so it doesn’t matter.”  What sort of lesson is this teaching the kids?  “Oh rights don’t matter so long as it doesn’t impact you.”  I hate to always go back to this famous saying, but …

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak out for me.

The Lower Merion School District violated the privacy rights of all 2300 students whether every camera was turned on or not.  To say, “they apologized” as one parent did, or suggest this one child and his family should move to another school district doesn’t change the fact this school potentially violated the rights of the children.

Think I’m making too much of a deal out of this?  Then why are both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Montgomery County detectives investigating the situation?  Within 48 hours of the story breaking to the media they began looking into it.  If there wasn’t a possibility of there being problems, they wouldn’t be there.

Perhaps when it comes to the rights of children, parents should think a bit further than their pocketbooks?

27
Feb
2010
Written by  |  under News  |  No Comments

This isn’t the normal type of post for this blog, but this situation is too serious to care.

The 8.8 Chile earthquake 2010 has set off a series of Tsunami waves that are heading for the islands and may be as many as eight to ten over several hours.  Everyone in low-lying areas need to turn off all electronics and unplug them in case of water getting in.

If you are in Hawaii, please get to higher ground or evacuation zones immediately.  Here is a map of the evacuation zones for the big island.  If you think this isn’t serious, please see this map of the energy expelled by the quake.  Waves are predicted to be six to nine feet.

The NOAA Pacific Tsunami Warning Center is also showing that Japan and China are in danger, so please act accordingly.

Some kind hearted people in Hawaii has set up a UStream video of channel 2 in Hawaii so you can get local news as it is happening. (God bless the Internet)  These feeds will eventually go dead, but watch while you can.

This one is KHON 2 Fox
Online video chat by Ustream

This one is KGMB CBS
Free live streaming by Ustream

I will continue to update as I learn more. Everyone please be safe!

23
Feb
2010

It seems that at least some people involved in the school webcam spying debacle were really proud of themselves.

A blog named Stryde Hax did some digging into the case of the Lower Merion School District spying on its students via their laptop webcams, and found that one of the people charged with running the system was quite frankly very proud of himself.  According to this very detailed blog post, an LMSD employee named Mike Perbix is one the technology employees for the school district, and he also seems to be very active in forms and on social networking sites.

It seems his pride in the schools ability to use a program named LANRev led to him even talking in a promotional video for the product talking about how wonderful it is and how it allows him to enter into computers without the user knowing about what is going on.  The program is now owned by another company, which has spoken out against the way the school district has used the program for “theft recovery, but the evidence of how Mr. Perbix gleefully talked about it is still out there.

I highly recommend you read the Stryde Hax post because it is by far some of the best reporting done on this disturbing story.

Additionally, students have now been coming out with more information, some of it contained in that same post that talks about how students couldn’t use non-school issued laptops in school under penalty of them being confiscated.  Thinking about going into your school issued computer and disabling your webcam?  Well, that would garner you an expulsion from school.  One former student with an unsubstantiated claim says that he would see his webcam light come for no reason, and when he reported it to the school, they told him it was merely a malfunction.

Things at these schools just get creepier, and creepier.

21
Feb
2010

It has not been a good weekend for the officials at the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania.

Yesterday brought the news that both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Montgomery County detectives were launching investigations into the possibility that the Lower Merion School District had violated both wiretapping and computer-intrusion laws.  Not wasting any time, Philly.com is reporting that grand jury subpoenas have already been issued to the schools for records and logs relating to the activation of the webcams built into school issued laptops.

The whole saga began on Thursday when the Blake Robbins class action suit against the school district came to light.  Mr. Robbins had been accused of “improper behavior in his home,” and was presented with a printed out picture from a computer webcam as evidence.  Mr. Robbins told the media gathered outside of his home recently that the image was of him eating Mike & Ike candies, which the school mistook for illegal pills, and has again stated this on the CBS’ Early Show Saturday Edition this weekend.

District spokesman Doug Young said that the cameras had been activated 42 times in the past 18-months in an effort to to find lost or stolen computers, of which 18 had been recovered.  Although Mr. Young would not specify why this particular camera that saw Mr. Robbins had been activated, he told the Associated Press, “infer what you want.”  The latest motion in the case states, “[Blake Robbins] was at home using a school issued laptop that was neither reported lost nor stolen when his image was captured by Defendants without his or his parents’ permission and while he was at home,” according to ComputerWorld.

The latest motions filed in court against the school are to bar any discussion with students or their families about the matter during the investigations.  Also, all files, logs and so on are to be preserved as evidence until further notice.  And it may not just be the FBI and county detectives that the school district has to be worried about, District Attorney Risa Vetri Ferman said yesterday: “We’re going to be looking into the situation to see if a criminal investigation is warranted.”

One of the most damning statements to be made so far has come from Virginia DiMedio, the district’s technology director until she retired last summer.  Again according to Philly.com, Ms. DiMedio said that she recalled no discussions about what to tell families about the security system, and how and when it would be used.

While Dr. Christopher McGinley has repeatedly apologized for the supposed oversight of informing families of the technology being installed on the laptops, things are looking more and more like the school just completely disregarded not only common sense, but the law in its actions.  The idea of supplying each student with a laptop is an admirable one, there are other loss prevention alternatives such as GPS and LoJack that could have easily located any lost or stolen laptops without ever needing to activate the webcams.  This is such a heinous violation of privacy that it is mind boggling.  And while the school still states that logs were kept of each activation, and only two employees had access to the software, this situation was a voyeurs dream come true.  All it would have taken is one less than moral employee to ruin many teenagers lives for years to come.

Willa McGowan, 17, of Rosemont, told Philly.com that while she was concerned about the webcams, she also worried about the school district’s reputation.  “Honestly, I love this school and this school district,” she said. “I don’t want this case to sully Lower Merion’s name.”  I’m sorry to say Ms. McGowan, that boat has already sailed it seems.

20
Feb
2010

The saga of the Lower Merion School District in Pennsylvania is getting another chapter added to it: The FBI and local detectives have entered the picture.

The other day I reported on a class action lawsuit (PDF link) being filed against the Lower Merion School District over the discovery that the school district could remotely activate the webcams in the 2300 laptops it had issued to students.  The information came to light when 15-year-old Blake Robbins was called to the Asst. principals office and was accused of “improper behavior in his home.”  As evidence of his poor behavior, he was presented with prints outs of images taken from a laptop’s webcam.

District spokesman Doug Young said that the cameras had been activated 42 times in the past 18-months in an effort to to find lost or stolen computers, of which 18 had been recovered.  Although Mr. Young would not specify why this particular camera that saw Mr. Robbins had been activated, he told the Associated Press, “infer what you want.”  However, according to Philly.com, Mr. Robbins told the media gathered outside of his home recently that the image was of him eating Mike & Ike candies, which the school mistook for illegal pills.

Whatever the case may be in the situation with Mr. Robbins, the school district’s ability to activate the cameras had never been revealed to the students or their families in any way.  This has now gotten the attention of both the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Montgomery County detectives over the possibility that the school violated both wiretapping and computer-intrusion laws.

The school district reports that the software which allowed them to remotely activate the camera’s has now been deactivated, but that isn’t putting any student’s minds at ease.  Reportedly the students have begun placing tape over the webcams built into their school-issued Apple laptops, and who can blame them?  The school has given permission for the students to cover the cameras, but, honestly, did they have a choice at this point in time?  And furthermore, if I was a student in this school district, they would be finding the laptop on their front lawn the moment I learned they could do this.

Dr. Christopher W. McGinley, the superintendent of the school district, has released a letter and a list of answers to frequently asked questions, one of which somewhat supports Mr. Robbins claims about the candies if you read between the lines (which you kind of have to do with each of his very carefully worded answers):

1. Did an assistant principal at Harriton ever have the ability to remotely monitor a student at home? Did she utilize a photo taken by a school-issued laptop to discipline a student?

  • No. At no time did any high school administrator have the ability or actually access the security- tracking software. We believe that the administrator at Harriton has been unfairly portrayed and unjustly attacked in connection with her attempts to be supportive of a student and his family. The district never did and never would use such tactics as a basis for disciplinary action.

Well, that’s nice and all, but the Asst. principal was never accused of being the one to access the camera, she simply had a print out of the image. Secondly, the lawsuit never mentions disciplinary action, it just says he was accused of “improper behavior in his home.”  And, I’m sorry, but being “supportive of a student and his family” involves showing a teenage boy an image that proves we can see in to your home?  Oh, I feel all warm and safe now!

No matter how you slice it, the school district messed up, and it messed up in a spectacular fashion.  No matter what Mr. Robbins did or did not do is not the point here.  The point is that a school district, no matter how altruistic its motives may have been, hid software capable of spying on someone in their own home without their knowledge.  Dr. McGinley admits it was wrong of them to not inform the students and their families of the software, which he fully admits they did not, and this shows such a spectacular lack of judgement that I would question every thing to do with this school system at this point.

A school is somewhere you are supposed to be able to send your children and feel safe in doing so.  Knowing that the school saw no problem in keeping vital information from you such as, “Oh, by the way, we can look at your child any time we want, even at home, without telling you” just goes beyond the pale.

Again I say, this is not about Mr. Robbins and what he may or may not have done, but it is very distinctly about a growing and worrying trend of schools overstepping the boundaries of common sensibilities.  What’s next?  Handcuffing a 12-year-old for doodling on her desk?  Oh … wait … that already happened.  Okay, how about handcuffing a six-year-old for throwing a temper tantrum?  Surely they wouldn’t … oh … dang it.

In short … are you sure you know what your public school is doing to “protect” your kids?

17
Feb
2010

The state of Utah is considering a new proposal that would see the 12th grade become optional for students if they have enough credits to graduate early.

Utah state Sen. Chris Buttars (R-West Jordan) raised some ire recently in his state by suggesting that the 12th grade be totally eliminated in the state in an effort to help reduce its $700 million dollar budget deficit.  This idea met with a lot of opposition, and Sen. Buttars has now changed his approach to that of making the 12th grade optional according to The Salt Lake City Tribune.

Currently the state does have a policy in place that allows students to graduate early if they have enough credits, but only approximately 200 students a year take advantage of it.  The new plan would offer some form of incentive to students (what exactly those incentives would be has not been listed anywhere that I can find) so that more of them would take advantage of the option.  Estimates say this could save the state $60 million per year.

Sen. Buttars reasoning is not only will this plan save the state money, but it makes sense as many students get no benefit from their senior year and choose to treat it as a time to goof off.

While I certainly think totally eliminating the year would have been a bad idea, early graduation due to having enough credits makes plenty of sense.  I had enough credits at winter break of my senior year to graduate, but my school did not offer the option.  When I missed the entire fourth quarter of my senior year due to the worst recorded case of Mono in my county’s history at the time (I’m not kidding), the school tried to hold me back a year despite my having enough credits.  After threats of lawsuits, the school finally agreed to allow me to graduate with my class.

So the idea of schools allowing graduation when you have enough credits?  I’m all for it!  Giving them incentives … I still will have to hear what those are, but if they’re reasonable, and don’t eat away at the $60 million dollar savings, why not?

8
Feb
2010

It would seem that public schools have totally lost their minds.

Alexa Gonzalez, a 12-year-old girl from Queens, New York, was recently taken out of her school in handcuffs and walked over to a police prescient across from her school.  Once there she was detained for several hours until she was released to her mother.

Her crime?  She doodled on her school desk with erasable marker.

According to the New York Daily News, Ms. Gonzalez scribbled on her desk, again, in erasable marker, “I love my friends Abby and Faith” and “Lex was here. 2/1/10″ followed by a smiley face.  Upon discovery of the doodles, the police were called and that was when she was escorted from the school in handcuffs.

She is currently suspended from school and has gone to family court where her sentence was eight hours of community service, a book report and an essay about what she has learned from the experience.

Excuse me, but what in the heck is going on here?

Don’t get me wrong, the girl shouldn’t have doodled on her desk, but it was erasable.  Whatever happened to the teacher saying something like, “Ms. Gonzalez, you’re going to have to clean that up and you have after school detention”?  Since when was the proper procedure to handcuff a pre-teen causing her emotional anguish over some doodles? David Cantor, a spokesman for the Education Department, said, “We’re looking at the facts. Based on what we’ve seen so far, this shouldn’t have happened.”

Gee … you think?

What about the police, though? They are also coupable in this disgrace. “Even when we’re asked to make an arrest, common sense should prevail, and discretion used in deciding whether an arrest or handcuffs are really necessary,” said police spokesman Paul Browne.

Again … you think?

I don’t even agree with the suspension, and I certainly don’t agree with the sentence that family court handed down. All any of this has done is to make Ms. Gonzalez distrustful of the school and justice systems, and with good reason.  They were doodles, in erasable marker … make her clean them up, give her detention, end of story.

Admittedly we have not heard if Ms. Gonzalez had prior disciplinary problems, but it doesn’t sound as if she had, and even then, involving the police, let alone the handcuffs, are excessive unless she got violent and threw a fit.  Again, it does not sound like she did either of those things.

Where has common sense gone?  I can see one person failing in their thought process, but this took multiple people to act like idiots.  Did no one in this process not go, “Um … she doodled … that’s it.”  Nope, multiple people seem to have all lost sense of their faculties and gone along with this farce.

Someone stop the world, I wanna get off.

31
Jan
2010

It would seem that James Madison High School in Midwood, Brooklyn is living up to its new nickname as “Horndog High”.

Allegations have surfaced against 37-year-old gym teacher Lisa Guttilla of sexual assault on a 14-year-old girl at Poly Prep Country Day School where she worked part time as a volleyball coach.  She also worked at James Madison High School in Brooklyn as a gym teacher.

The accusations arose after the teenager’s mother began questioning her about a hickey on her neck.  The teenager eventually confessed to three sessions of fondling with Ms. Guttilla between Jan. 4th and 9th.  The complaint filed in Brooklyn Criminal Court has the teacher charged with misdemeanor sexual abuse and endangering the welfare of child and states that she did “touch, grab, squeeze and kiss the [girl] about the breast and buttock.”

Ms. Guttilla has been reassigned her to a job that teachers under investigation go to while being investigated.  She may encounter some familiar faces there as this is the third teacher sex scandal in two months for James Madison High School.  The first involved two teachers, Alini Brito and Cindy Mauro, being caught by a janitor while making out in a classroom during a school talent show.  The second incident involved a social studies teacher named Allison Musacchio who was discovered to have made over 200 calls and texts to a male student at the school. She was discovered after the ex-girlfriend of the student spotted the boy’s phone number on the teacher’s cell phone.

Either there is a serious problem at this school, or else students are finding a way to attack their teachers.  Accusations of this magnitude are a serious situation, but in all of the teacher sex scandals I’ve documented, I’ve never seen a concentration like this in one school.  Something is beginning to smell a might funny about all of this.

22
Dec
2009

Public schools across the United States are closed for the winter holidays, but apparently not all teachers are done seeing their students.

Amanda Watkins, a 38-year-old mother and teacher at Sheffield Jr. High School in Alabama, has been arrested on second degree rape charges.  According to the Shoals Insider, Ms. Watkins was discovered Saturday night by the police in a vehicle parked near the Covenant Christian school, off of Hwy. 43 in Muscle Shoals.

The officers responded to an alarm at the Christian school, and upon arrival they noticed a car with heavily fogged windows.  When the police approached the car, they discovered Ms. Watkins engaged in sexual activity with a 15-year-old African-American male.  It has now been confirmed the boy was in one of Ms. Watkins’ classes during the 2008 – 2009 school year.

Ms. Watkins has been placed on administrative leave from teaching 8th grade English and reading classes pending this investigation.  Although, it has been reported that Ms. Watkins has made a full confession, this has not yet been confirmed by an official source on the record.

She has been charged with sodomy and rape in the second degree, which is a class B felony and carries a sentence of 2-20 years imprisonment.  Upon her release she would be monitored and required to register as a sex offender.

Ms. Watkins has been released from jail on $15,000 bond.

These two now join the roll call of teacher sex scandals for 2009!

9
Dec
2009

alini brito and cindy mauroWell, for once the teachers were at least not going after the students, instead,they were going after each other.

According to The New York Daily News (NYDC)  33-year-old married teacher Alini Brito was found with 29-year-old teacher Cindy Mauro in an empty classroom during a school talent show at  James Madison High School in Midwood, Brooklyn by a janitor.  While being in a classroom wasn’t so odd, it was the fact they were both naked.

The janitor reported the two tenured teachers to school authorities and they have been reassigned pending an investigation by the board of education.  Ms. Brito’s husband was reached for comment by NYDC, and he reportedly denied that any accusation have been brought against his wife.

The initial report is lacking in many more details except for comments from students that imply that Ms. Brito tends to dress more like a teenage girl than a teacher, and is quite flirtatious.  As for Ms. Mauro, they say she tends to be more reserved and conservative.

While this differs from the other teacher sex scandals I usually cover, if true, it is just another sign of people not using their brains.  The school is full of students, in an assembly or not, and you would choose to have sex in a classroom?  True, the NYDC report never blatantly says they were engaged in sexual activity, but it is certainly implied.  What these two women do off school grounds, on their own time, married or not, is their own business.  However, doing something like this in the school with students around is just stupid and irresponsible.

Where has all the good sense gone in the world.  Heck, not even “good” sense, just plain COMMON sense.  Would the average person not think, “Hey, maybe this isn’t such a hot idea to do this in the building where we teach, let alone with our students in the building.”  Apparently those that say common sense has become more uncommon or on to something.

UPDATE 4/5/10: Both teachers have now been found guilty by the Board of Education.

These two now join the roll call of teacher sex scandals for 2009!

[via The Inquisitr]

18
Nov
2009

xenuIt seems that at least one member of the Australian parliament has had enough of the Church of Scientology.

Independent Australian senator Nick Xenophon tabled letters with the Australian parliament this week from former members of the Church of Scientology that accuse the organization of torture, coerced abortions, embezzlement and more crimes.  According to the Times of London, Mr. Xenophon made some very sweeping claims against Scientology:

Scientology is not a religious organisation, it is a criminal organisation that hides behind its so-called religious beliefs …

The letters received by me which were written by former followers in Australia contains extensive allegations of crimes and abuses that are truly shocking – crimes against them and crimes they say they were coerced into committing.

These victims of Scientology claim it is an abusive, manipulative, violent and criminal organisation, and that criminality is condoned at the highest levels.

While nothing is definite yet, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd is calling for investigations into the accusations which the Church of Scientology mearly says they are the angry ramblings of disgruntled former members.  “Many people in Australia have real concerns about Scientology,” Prime Minister Rudd said. He also commented, “I share some of those concerns. Let us proceed carefully and look carefully at the material he has provided before we make a decision on further parliamentary action.”

The list of allegations include (again from the Time of London):

  • Paul Schofield admitted to being part of a campaign to cover up the facts surrounding the death of his two daughters, including two and a half-year-old Kirsty, who died during a purification program.
  • Aaron Saxton confined and tortured a follower and coerced females to have abortions, one who used a coat hanger for fear of punishment. He also has details of murder confessions from members in the US, information that was never passed on to police.
  • Carmel Underwood was put under “extreme pressure” to have an abortion, and witnessed a young sexually abused girl being coached on how to keep it secret.
  • Anna and Dean Detheridge, who were forced to reject a gay relative, provided evidence that personal information was used to blackmail and control them.
  • Kevin Mackey revealed how he handed over nearly a million dollars in exchange for services and products after he was conditioned by the sect.
  • Peta O’Brien was discouraged from seeking treatment for cancer, was cut off from her son and provided evidence of being assaulted.

While the Church of Scientology can claim these are the ramblings of disgruntled former members, but these fit in with numerous stories from anti-Scientology sites such as Xenu.net that have been collected over the years.

While this is the first time I have heard claims of coerced abortions, it is far from the first time I have had stories of Scientologists being forced to reject (known as “disconnection” in the Church) family members.  Paul Haggis, the Oscar winning screenwriter who recently left the Church, told a story of how he was forced to disconnect from relatives who had left the Church.  The Church denies that this policy still exists, but the evidence continues to mount that it indeed does.

All of these claims are of course nothing more than claims at this time, and as with any time I write about Scientology, I highly recommend you do your own research into the organization.  I would, however, say, that if the government of an entire country is becoming interested in investigating them, doesn’t that say something isn’t completely right here?  Again, do your own reading, but for those of us who already speak out against Scientology, this is a major step in the right direction.

[hat tip to Jo for pointing out this story to me on Twitter]

8
Oct
2009

lcrossOkay, we really haven’t declared war on the Moon, but we are bombing it tomorrow.

At 11:30 AM GMT October 9, the  Lunar CRater Observing and Sensing Satellite (LCROSS) will impact the Moon in a crater named Cabeus A in the South Polar region.  The impact will occur at 5,600 MPH, creating a new crater about 1/3rd the size of an American football field.  The resulting plume of debris is expected to extend up to 30 miles from the Lunar surface.

Why are we doing this?  Well, first of all, it’s fun, and secondly, NASA is attempting to see if there is any water or ice crystals mixed in the debris.

While we have been doing some scans of the Moon’s surface that indicate there is ice, an essential element to us building any sort of long-term colony on our planet’s only satellite, we do not have any definitive proof as of yet.  While a return to the Moon has been brought into question as of late, this is something we still need to know if we ever hope to go back there for an extended period.

If you have a telescope at home that lens surface is 10″ or more, you will be able to watch it happen, but somehow I doubt that is very many of you.  Gizmodo made a handy guide of how you can watch this event for yourself:

  • Attend one of the many public events organized by observatories throughout the country. You can see a list of events here.
  • Watch NASA TV, which will broadcast the event.
  • Use Slooh, the site that lets you control telescopes around the world in your PJs. Go to this page here to get more information about it.

The event will take place at 7:31AM Eastern/4:31AM Pacific.  Below is a map of the bombing site, click for a super-sized version.

LCROSSbombingsites

Now, here’s hoping the Moon doesn’t retaliate!