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Posted at 9:10 AM ET, 03/ 4/2010

Don't send grade hackers to jail

By Valerie Strauss

Should kids who hack into their school’s computer system to change grades be charged as criminals and sent to prison if found guilty?

That possibility exists now that the Montgomery County state’s attorney is investigating an episode at affluent Churchill High School in which some students were involved in a scheme to hack into the school computers and change the grades of 54 students, according to a Washington Post story.

At least eight students were involved; three have left the school, and the story says they were allowed to withdraw voluntarily (perhaps because that was better than being expelled) and the others await their punishment from the school. Now they all are under criminal investigation.

According to Maryland’s criminal code section 7-302, which you can see here,
it is illegal to enter into a computer network in which you are not authorized, and to interrupt the operation of the system or “alter, damage or destroy all or any part of data or a computer program.”

Illegal entering a computer system is a misdemeanor, the code says, and anyone convicted is subject to imprisonment of not more than thee years or a fine not exceeding $1,000 or both. Changing data, if the “aggregate amount of other loss is less than $10,000,” is also a misdemeanor and can subject the guilty to imprisonment not exceeding five years or a fine not exceeding $5,000 or both.

School officials said their own investigation proved that at least eight kids allegedly used a USB device to steal teachers’ passwords and change the grades of 54 students. It is not known if all 54 students knew their grades were changed, if money was exchanged, or other details.

Kids with the savvy to hack into a computer system are smart on some level, if ethically challenged. These are kids who know better, or certainly should have. There can be no extenuating circumstance that explains this away.

That said, sending these kids to jail would be counterproductive and, frankly, over the top. But simply fining them some money is hardly enough of a punishment either.

What makes some sense is to sentence these kids to many, many hours of community service in which they help kids in less privileged areas learn how to use computers, and/or fix computers if they have the expertise, and/or be required to take on fund-raising efforts to bring computers to schools where they are none.

That sounds like a way to teach a real lesson, which is what punishment is supposed to be about.

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By Valerie Strauss  | March 4, 2010; 9:10 AM ET
Categories:  Montgomery County Public Schools  | Tags:  churchill high school, computer hackers, criminal investigation, student hackers  
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I agree that the students should not go to jail, simply because the risks of jail are so great. I am talking about being raped or assaulted, falling in with hardened criminals, etc. However, I think that community service involving computers would be too much like spending time with their hobby. I'd rather see them doing something that they hate. It needs to feel like a punishment. They have done something very bad and they need to learn now that there are consequences for doing very bad things.

Posted by: drl97 | March 4, 2010 10:20 AM | Report abuse

At my place of employment using someone else's password is a firing offense.

I'm not in favor of jail for the kids but I would support suspension.

It's wrong and in the 'real' world if you do that and create problems you won't be working there any more.

Posted by: RedBird27 | March 4, 2010 10:40 AM | Report abuse

I think that jail is over the top, community service would be fine. In addition, Whitman should be contacting all of the schools where they applied so that they are aware of this. However, I am certain that this won't happen.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | March 4, 2010 10:46 AM | Report abuse

I think that the students didn't understand the seriousness of what they were doing. For them it was so easy to do this. I think jail would be absurd, but you have to look at the cheating policy at the school system. If a student cheats on a quiz, they are allowed to take a different re-assessment. (not on standardized or county tests or final exams)
I like your idea about having the students do community work, but, I would also like to see the county have a stronger policy on any cheating.
And for this one, I do blame parents a bit- they are the ones who insist that everybody get a second chance at everything and it is just unfair to those who study and really deserve good grades.

Posted by: celestun100 | March 4, 2010 10:47 AM | Report abuse

My apologies to the good folks at Whitman, I meant Churchill of course.

Posted by: Wyrm1 | March 4, 2010 10:48 AM | Report abuse

As background, my child is at Churchill and we received a letter indicating that his grade had been changed but it was authorized by his teacher. He had no idea his grade had ever been changed. That said, he is very angry that students in his school did this and harmed him and others who work so hard for their grades. Why so much focus on the 8 people who caused this mess? What about the other 2,300+ who go to school every day, work hard and try to do the best they can? I say make an example of these kids. Expel them, write them up in their file so all colleges they apply to know what they did, and have them suffer the natural consequences of their actions. I am all for community service, but please consider the students negatively affected by this situation more than the ones who knowingly and willfully caused it.

Posted by: IndependentThinker3 | March 4, 2010 11:07 AM | Report abuse

They are kids for ... sake! I don't see the benefit to society of sending them to jail. While they should understand the consequences of such actions, community service is an appropriate "punishment."
I do wonder, why they changed the grade of 46 other students. Did they get paid for it or they did it to "help" them without the kids knowledge.

Posted by: james78 | March 4, 2010 11:30 AM | Report abuse

I think you hit the nail on the head, Valerie, when you wrote "ethically challenged" regarding the hackers. I also
think you are suggesting "let the punishment fit the crime".

As drl97 wrote, the consequences for these students need to feel like punishment and, I would add, be pretty substantial. The nature of this hacking
incident was really serious: a broad cheating scheme plus the illegal "breaking and entering" aspect into a system that has
many students' information on it.

So,I would recommend something with multiple layers of consequences:

1. the students involved LOSE their
technology privileges for at least a
month - no computers or cell phones
at home and school, plus they have
something like an 8:00 curfew at home
so the parents do their job and
enforce this. The students will have
to figure out how easy they've had it.

2. the students work to raise the amount
of the fine for each of them and
donate it to an impoverished group
that needs computers.

3. since they are so smart, they can
attend a nearby university class on
ethics in technology - if there isn't
one, a concerned faculty member or
administrator might come up with a
series of projects that address ethics
in the work/school place.

4. the students owe the entire school
a major apology and some form of
redress for violating trust and confi-

After the above, or perhaps as an outgrowth of ethical considerations and redress, it would be great if the students
would donate community service time helping
others develop their computer skills, as
Valerie suggested above.

Posted by: PLMichaelsArtist-at-Large | March 4, 2010 11:34 AM | Report abuse

Punish the students who cheated? Maybe it would be a better idea to fire all the teachers at Churchill and then hire them back again. :)

Posted by: celestun100 | March 4, 2010 11:53 AM | Report abuse

I think the students involved should give talks to every school in the county about what they have done and why this was morally wrong. They also need to apologize to the Chruchill students and the entire school.

Posted by: EHenders | March 4, 2010 11:55 AM | Report abuse

Yes, they are children/teenagers. However, allow me to put it in a different light. These students broke into a computer system with confidential information about hundreds of students. I don't know if it also included the school nurse's records, but it easily could have. The data they changed could potentially have been people's medical data for amusement by adding STDs or other things to people's medical records or they might have removed important information such as allergies. Most schools have very strict rules about medication given to students and with the wrong information about allergies or other medical history the student could potentially be at risk of anything from a mild allergic reaction to death if the nurse gave them medication based on those records and it was something that interacted wrong or caused an allergic reaction.

They could have mailed confidential medical information about someone to thousands of people on the internet to embarrass them.

While this scenario is a hypothesis, it is just as possible when people hack into a system and change the information as what actually occured. This is one reason why hacking needs to be viewed very seriously.

Additionally, most courts will tell you that "lack of knowledge of the law is not an excuse for breaking it." It may be a mitigating factor that causes the judge to reduce the sentance.

Posted by: RazorGirl | March 4, 2010 11:59 AM | Report abuse

The thing I am left wondering is do some parents continue to set a bad example by not having their kid take responsibility for their action?

Allowing these kids to continue their education with ramifications such as changing schools and/or retaking classes with permanent markings on high school transcripts would not destroy a minor's future. Yet, I wonder if the MCPS would have handled this internally through suspension, expelling, failing grades, or other punishment that can be applied by the school; if it were not for the three kids that tried to skirt the system? When they withdrew, as advised by their parents, they shirked from their responsibility to get outside of the reach of the school system.

I wonder if it is not for the actions of these 3, and more specifically their parents, that the State's Attorney's office became involved. For not taking responsibility, they have now probably brought legal proceedings against all 8, if not to also include some portion of the 46 that had their grades changed. While the parents probably did not know at the time what their kids were doing as concerns the cheating scandal, the most disturbing thing to me is what these parents did (as 40-50 year old adults) to encourage their 16 year old kids to run from their mistakes and not accept responsibility.

Posted by: JBMSC | March 4, 2010 12:53 PM | Report abuse

Wow, what a great country. Only in America can you do stupid and illegal things with impunity.

Buy a house by lying about your salary, job prospects, and savings? No problem - the government will help you or the banks will let you live for years without paying.

Live for years without saving any money? No problem, you'll get all sorts of benefits.

Break into a computer system and hack your grades? Don't worry, you'll never have to go to jail.

Lock 'em up.

Posted by: mattR5 | March 4, 2010 12:54 PM | Report abuse

I think these students should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. If these were minority students at a lower performing school in P.G. County, there would not even be a question as to punishment. And, I say this having graduated from Winston Churchill H.S. myself.

Posted by: Serengeti | March 4, 2010 12:57 PM | Report abuse

So these kids are given a pass since their crime was white collar? I understand that their offenses were misdemeanors, but we are losing sight of how their actions impacted others.

Understand that whatever benefits they gained from cheating came at the expense of other students and families. By defrauding the system, they got an advantage in the scholarship and school application process. The pool of students with similar scores that earned them on their own merit just got larger. And those whose scores were slightly less are crowded out.

Ultimately this could weigh a heavy financial burden for families that hoped their kid could get a scholarship but lost it to these cheaters. Similarly, a child's first or second school choice may no longer be obtainable if a school overlooked them for a cheater.

In my perspective, their actions were far more destructive then the petty crimes that sends so many disadvantaged youth to juvenile lockup. If the punishment fits the crime, they should absolutely serve a jail sentence.

Posted by: lord_dorpaldonger | March 4, 2010 1:33 PM | Report abuse

"Maybe it would be a better idea to fire all the teachers at Churchill and then hire them back again. :)

Now you're talking, celestun - I'm surprised no one thought of this solution before now. Maybe because it's an upper-income surburban school where teachers aren't expected to everything to their students.

Posted by: efavorite | March 4, 2010 4:13 PM | Report abuse

they should not be allowed to walk at graduation ceremony ... i think they should have to attend whatever their district's 'special school for bad behaviour kids' is instead of return to regular school ... community service yes ... and spring break week or 1 week in the summer in some juvenile detention facility .. full restitution for costs incurred in the detection, investigation, remediation, etc ...

Posted by: BillthePMP | March 4, 2010 4:26 PM | Report abuse

It is remarkable how forgiving we are despite the fact that the State’s investigation seems to have just started and there are only limited facts available from the school’s review. It seems we focus on the white collar nature of what may have transpired and find a way to discount the harm and move on. Students did not come by these passwords accidently or inadvertently. The changes did not happen without an outcome in mind.

Thus far, all that has come out relates to the grade book system. We have no other information about what other information may or may not have been accessed with the key logger data, or even how long the system was compromised. But the data in the key logger would have compromised any personal or school security measure accessed during the period it was attached to the computer.

Rumors circulate among our kids that these students had access to advance copies of tests and provided or sold these to friends in addition to grade changes. Facts around this would not be recorded like the grade changes. Damage done to classmates cannot be unwound easily. For college bound students, the cut-offs for many scholarships are bright lines around grade point averages. The Maryland Distinguished Scholar program is a good example.

I suspect there is potential for a great deal of harm to have been done to the students and teachers at Churchill. Our child is in the class of one of the teacher’s whose grade book was compromised. There has been a clear impact on the teacher’s relationship with the class, it is not positive. It is perhaps understandable.

Posted by: swan_502 | March 4, 2010 6:37 PM | Report abuse

Ok don't send them to jail. Have them do some community service. That will do nothing, my guess is these students only are sad they got caught not that they actually did something wrong. They need to be expelled from MCPS. If these students altered grades of other students and lowered them they deserve any penalty. The other students who were affected by this did not deserve this treatment or hassle. The whole excuse these students are under so much pressure is absolutely silly. These students have amazing lives, with cell phones, and cars and nice clothes, etc... How about teaching our children to respect others and about responsiblity?!

Posted by: MyraFreeman | March 4, 2010 8:48 PM | Report abuse

If this was an inner city schools and the students were black or hispanic, it wouldn't get the press coverage we see and those perpetrators would in juvenile detention awaiting a hearing. Being from an upper middle-class neighborhood or better, these students most likely will get s slap on the wrist and receive compensation for their "voluntary" community service.

Posted by: inbox_cj | March 5, 2010 6:45 PM | Report abuse

The students have no concept of privacy. First, they should not be protected from exposure because of their age--let their classmates know which of their friends has been looking at their grades. They need to hear from their friends that invading privacy is not appreciated.
Second, they may never have had their own privacy respected, so any efforts to instruct them in the ethics of the situation should include the parents. At one place where I worked, a worker looked at some pay information that had inadvetently been left out--turned several pages, not just couldn't resist reading what was right in front of her--and then talked about it. When the manager tried to reprimand her, he compared it to reading someone else's mail. She didn't see that she had done anything wrong; in her family, whoever brought the mail in opened it all and read it aloud! Another worker didn't see why she shouldn't help herself to any coffee cup that was handy.

Third, the schools should stop releasing the names of students who make the honor roll--isn't this a form of publicizing their grades. (I once had a high school teacher who announced each student's grade as he handed back the tests.)

Posted by: sideswiththekids | March 6, 2010 1:28 PM | Report abuse

Community service would be fine if they had only changed their own grades. However, several news reports indicated that they had _lowered_ the grades of other students (who did not buy in? who they did not like? ). This crosses the line into purely malicious hacking. They should be expelled.

Posted by: sc09 | March 7, 2010 12:42 PM | Report abuse

Community service is a sham in most places. Get someone to punch your ticket and you're free go on your way.

Those found guilty of hacking and changing grades should:

1) Be compelled to repeat their most recent grade.

2) Have the offense described and permanently noted on their academic record(s).

To do less will be giving these punks a
free-ride and something "cool" to laugh and brag amongst their friends.

Posted by: kinkysr | March 8, 2010 10:14 AM | Report abuse

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