BOE SETTLES SUIT WITH STUDENT’S FAMILY FOR $950K AFTER CONTACT WITH PREDATOR ON SCHOOL ISSUED LAPTOP
Updated: Apr 21, 2021
On December 31, 2020, the New Jersey Superior Court approved a settlement in the amount of $950,000.00 in a case involving the Collingswood Board of Education. Although the facts surrounding the case occurred in 2018, it is a cautionary tale of what can go awry with school - issued computers, especially in the virtual - learning format that so many school districts have been forced to use in the wake of the COVID -19 pandemic.
In M.S., T.S., and K.S. v. Collingswood Board of Education, et. al., the Complaint alleges that a twelve -year-old student was provided with a school -issued laptop to assist her in her classwork, homework, and school related projects. The student brought the computer home daily and over weekends. This computer was the student’s only access to the internet while at home. Throughout the school year, the student’s parents inquired about the search history of the computer. The school did not respond to the parents’ inquiry. The parents also inquired as to whether the school blocked any websites that would either be inappropriate or were unrelated to school work. Again, the school failed to respond.
At some point during the school year, the student was contacted by an adult male, Liam Heim. The Complaint alleges that he “began regularly communicating” with the student.
Eventually, the school and family came to an agreement whereby the student would only have access to the computer during school hours. However, the school failed to supervise and monitor the student’s use, which allowed the student to continue using the computer for non-school purposes. This allowed the communication between the student and Heim to continue.
The communication between Heim and the student reached a point where Heim informed her that he wanted to see her and would travel to New Jersey to do so. Thereafter, according to the Complaint, Heim kidnapped the student, transported her across state lines and repeatedly sexually assaulted her.
While this case presents the worst-case scenario, districts in general must be vigilant about its obligations regarding school issued technology. The District was on notice of a potential issue but did not respond to the parents.
Sites should be blocked that do not correspond with school activity. Websites that provide for chatrooms and allow unfettered access of search engines may permit students to search inappropriate topics or discussion boards that may place them in precarious positions. Installing controls on these devices for use in the manner in which they are intended (educational reasons) will greatly reduce the risk of another tragic event happening as well as the school’s liability.
This matter should be reviewed with the District’s IT department to ensure that safeguards are in place to protect students from inappropriate material and online predators.
This Alert provides information about the current developments in New Jersey education law. It is necessarily general and not intended as legal advice or a substitute for legal advice. Questions about individual issues should be addressed to the attorney of your choice. Contact W. Connor Kimmel of Sciarrillo Cornell at firstname.lastname@example.org or Anthony P. Sciarrillo at email@example.com