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The school district says the webcam surveillance is for security. (Daily news photo illustration)

A Lower Merion family has set off a furor among students, parents, and civil liberties groups by alleging that Harriton High School officials used a webcam on a school-issued laptop to spy on their 15-year-old son at home.

In a lawsuit filed Tuesday in federal court, the family said the school’s assistant principal had confronted their son, told him he had “engaged in improper behavior in [his] home, and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam embedded in [his] personal laptop issued by the school district.”

The suit contends the Lower Merion School District, one of the most prosperous and highest-achieving in the state, had the ability to turn on students’ webcams and illegally invade their privacy.

While declining to comment on the specifics of the suit, spokesman Douglas Young said the district was investigating. “We’re taking it very seriously,” he said last night.

The district’s Apple MacBook laptops have a built-in webcam with a “security feature” that can snap a picture of the operator and the screen if the computer is reported lost or stolen, Young said.

But he said “the district would never utilize that security feature for any other reason.” The district said that the security system was “deactivated” yesterday, and that it would review when the system had been used.

Widener University law professor Stephen Henderson said using a laptop camera for home surveillance would violate wiretap laws, even if done to catch a thief.

A statement on the district Web site said the lawsuit’s allegations “are counter to everything that we stand for as a school and a community.”

The suit says that in November, assistant principal Lynn Matsko called in sophomore Blake Robbins and told him that he had “engaged in improper behavior in his home,” and cited as evidence a photograph from the webcam in his school-issued laptop.

Matsko later told Robbins’ father, Michael, that the district “could remotely activate the webcam contained in a student’s personal laptop . . . at any time it chose and to view and capture whatever images were in front of the webcam” without the knowledge or approval of the laptop’s users, the suit says.

It does not say what improper activity Robbins was accused of or what, if any, discipline resulted. Reached at home yesterday, his mother, Holly, said she could not comment on advice of the family’s lawyers