Lower Merion School District officials used school-issued laptop computers to illegally spy on students, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court.

The suit, filed Tuesday, says unnamed school officials at Harriton High School in Rosemont remotely activated the webcam on a student's computer last year because the district believed he "was engaged in improper behavior in his home."

An assistant principal at Harriton confronted the student for "improper behavior" on Nov. 11 and cited a photograph taken by the webcam as evidence.

Michael E. and Holly S. Robbins, of Penn Valley, filed the suit on behalf of their son, Blake. They are seeking class action status for the suit.

The district has issued school-owned laptops to 2,290 high school students, starting last school year at Harriton, in an effort to promote more "engaged and active learning and enhanced student achievement," superintendent Christopher W. McGinley said in a message on the district website.

McGinley and school board president David Ebby did not respond to requests for comment.

In a statement on its website, the district said that "The laptops do contain a security feature intended to track lost, stolen and missing laptops. This feature has been deactivated effective today."

In a later statement, the district said: "Upon a report of a suspected lost, stolen or missing laptop, the feature was activated by the District's security and technology departments. The tracking-security feature was limited to taking a still image of the operator and the operator's screen. This feature has only been used for the limited purpose of locating a lost, stolen or missing laptop. The District has not used the tracking feature or web cam for any other purpose or in any other manner whatsoever."

When the computers were distributed to students, the district did not disclose that it could activate the cameras at any time, the suit alleges.

It claims the school district violated federal and state wiretapping laws and violated students' civil rights.

The suit also claims the district's use of the webcams amounted to an invasion of privacy and that any intercepted images could show "images of minors and their parents or friends in compromising or embarrassing positions, including, but not limited to, in various states of undress."

The lawsuit did not say what improper activity Blake Robbins was accused of, or what, if any, discipline resulted.

Virginia DiMedio, who was the Lower Merion district's technology director until she retired last summer, said that "if there was a report that a computer was stolen, the next time a person opened it up, it would take their picture and give us their IP [internet protocol] address - the location of where it was coming from." She said that that feature had been used several times to trace stolen laptops, but there had been no discussion of using that capability to monitor students' behavior. "I can't imagine anyone in the district did anything other than track stolen computers," she said.

Lillie Coney, associate director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a privacy watchdog group, said that she had not heard of a previous case where school officials were alleged to have monitored student behavior at home via a computer.

If the lawsuits' allegations are true, Coney said, "this is an outrageous invasion of individual privacy - it shocks the conscience."

Contact staff writer Sam Wood at 215-854-2796 or samwood@phillynews.com