Respice Finem

I am over at the Main Line Times today, but if you want to avoid the usual suspects, all anonymous, unloading over there, just read the op ed below in its extended version.

Respice finem means, literally, “look to the end; consider the outcome.” I was reminded of those words as I listened to some of the grandstanding that was done by various members of the community and, sadly, at least one high school student headed for the newspaper business, at the special meeting of the school board last night at Harriton High School. The most bewildering question, as far as I was concerned, came from Professor Burton Caine, a legal scholar of considerable prominence who asked why the legal firm Ballard Spahr “had not interviewed the former Police Commissioner, Joe Daley, who was quoted in the newspaper as saying that’s as illegal as hell.” Isn’t the answer obvious? If we relied not on the evidence before our eyes, but rather, the whimsy of newspaper reporters and statements made by sundry individuals to the press, we would be fighting this lawsuit for years. Perhaps decades. (The full report from Ballard Sparh is available here.)

Professor Caine also referenced the fact that many in the audience questioned the motives of the Robbins family in filing the lawsuit at all. What struck me about his statement, which elaborated, with great flourish, the worth of lawsuits, is that an academic interest in the merit of lawsuits is quite different from the real-world impact of lawsuits on communities. Has the professor forgotten that the courts exist to intervene when all other methods of arriving at compromise and obtaining justice have broken down? We do not file lawsuits for purposes of entertainment or intellectual stimulation. We file them when no other means exist to obtain what we seek, which, in the words of the Robbinses’ lawyer himself, Mr. Haltzman, was, apparently, information, not compensation.

The fact is, you can’t have it both ways. You can’t opt out of civil discussion and rush to filing a class action lawsuit – a lawsuit whose legal credibility as a “class action” is now in question given that the TheftTrack feature’s three separate functions (i.e. recording the IP address, taking a webcam photo and taking a screen shot), were only activated on Blake Robbins’ computer and no other. Even if we set aside the fact that a team of parents, as well as one separate family, have filed for consideration as an intervening class, the fact of the matter is, the circumstances surrounding Blake Robbins are not representative of those surrounding any other student. Here is the paragraph within the report that deals with that issue:

On March 18, 2010, a group of six parents of LMSD high school students filed a motion to intervene in the Robbins case to pursue claims arising from the District’s remote activation of webcams on student laptops.5 Their proposed complaint seeks only equitable relief, including an order prohibiting LMSD from remotely activating webcams on student laptops, prohibiting LMSD from using laptop tracking technology that can compromise students’ and families’ privacy, and requiring LMSD to create and implement policies and practices for the District’s administration of student laptops. (Motion of Colleen and Kenneth Wortley, Frances and David McComb, and Christopher and Lorena Chambers for Intervention, filed March 18, 2010 in Robbins, et al. v. Lower Merion School District, et al., No. 10-665 (E.D. Pa.) (“Wortley Intervention Motion”), App. Tab 205.)

On April 5, 2010, an HHS student and his parents filed a motion to intervene in the Robbins case to pursue claims arising from the District’s remote activation of webcams on student laptops. Their proposed complaint seeks only equitable relief – namely, an injunction permanently prohibiting the District from remotely accessing laptops “in a manner that constitutes an unreasonable search of students and their families,” and a declaration restricting the dissemination of images captured by TheftTrack. (Emergency Motion of the Neill Family to Intervene and for a Protective Order, filed April 5, 2010 in Robbins, et al. v. Lower Merion School District, et al., No. 10-665 (E.D. Pa.) (“Neill Intervention Motion”), App. Tab 06.)

The second of the two young men from the staff of The Merionite had several questions most of which revolved around why the Superintendent was allowed sole access to the data, a question, that Dr. McGinley fielded with an indulgent reference to his technological ineptitude. The main thrust of the student’s comments, as well as those of some others in the audience, was why the board would authorize such an expense without understanding completely what the separate features might be. Well, here’s the answer: trust. The principal of a school routinely authorizes creative modifications to curricula based on trust in the expertise of teachers. If a principal were to have to understand every single subject before she made such authorizations, we would still be etching on stone tablets. When a president wishes to make policy on the environment, he (and, someday, she) asks for the recommendations of subordinates. In this case, the recommendations was supported by material that indicated to the persons making the recommendation, Ms. Cafiero and Mr. Perbix, that another school in Pennsylvania had used the TheftTrack effectively. The paragraph relating to that is below.

In addition, Pole Position touted TheftTrack in its promotional materials, including a “case study” of the use of TheftTrack by the Bensalem (PA) Township School District to recover two MacBooks, one of which had been stolen from a student and the other of which was stolen from a teacher.25 Noting that the Bensalem district had chosen LANrev in part for its ability to manage both Mac and Windows computers, Pole Position stated that the stolen laptops had returned 500 webcam photographs and other tracking data that the Bensalem and Camden, New Jersey police Departments used to obtain search warrants. The article quotes a Bensalem district network technician as saying: “The police were amazed at the detailed tracking info provided by LANrev. Thanks to TheftTrack, our stolen MacBooks were recovered, the culprits apprehended, and we got the last laugh.”

But more than these kinds of agenda-driven questions, what struck me as most disappointing was the tone used by the student in addressing people at least three decades his senior. There are questions to be asked, and they have been. There is anger to be expressed, and it has been. But there is something else that has fallen by the wayside during this circus and that is our understanding of what makes a good school system. It is not buildings, although they are certainly glorious, it is not a/c for Philadelphia summers and a greenhouse for potted plants, although those bring comfort, it is not, in short, facilities, but people. So what I would like to say to this boy and his peers are those two words: respice finem. Look to the end, consider the outcome. For the outcome and end is not the little media blip you get from being precocious and combative. The outcome is your own education. The outcome is the respect and care of your teachers and elders. The outcome is the stature of the school to which you belong.

The public and private schools my brothers, friends and I attended in Sri Lanka all had classes consisting of 40 students, a piece of chalk and a blackboard. All of us went on to graduate school, some of us to the finest universities here, including Harvard, MIT and Cornell. We didn’t learn what we needed to know to succeed in life from the facilities in which our learning took place. Our advantage was that we had teachers who cared about us and parents who did not see teachers and administrators as adversaries.

In the midst of all the new buildings and state-of-the-art equipment in Lower Merion, what I have seen, and what I focus on, is that same care and commitment to students that we had in our Spartan Sri Lankan classrooms, and the willingness on the part of parents and staff to consider education a task that is undertaken with mutual respect and cooperation. That, son, is a fragile but beautiful thing. When you look back at this time in your life, what you will remember is not free laptops, webcams or multi-million-dollar renovations. What you will remember are those people. Give them your respect, for without them nothing else matters. Respice finem.

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