The Melissa eMail virus that caused a stir among computer users several weeks ago also highlighted the ability of school technology personnel to react quickly and effectively sidestep a potential computer problem.

Even before the New Jersey man charged with originating the virus was arrested, it was clear school technology personnel were mobilizing to avoid Melissa. Several schools and districts reported they had received Melissa eMail messages, but none was reported to have been infected.

As fast as the virus spread, so, too, did urgent messages alerting people of the potential danger. Some school officials said anti-virus software caught the bug before Melissa could be activated.

The virus comes in the form of an eMail message, usually containing the subject line, “Important Message.” The message appears to be from a friend or colleague. The body of the eMail message says, “Here is that document you asked for–don’t show it to anyone else,” followed by a winking smiley face formed by the punctuation marks ;-).

Attached to the message is a Microsoft Word document file that lists internet pornography sites. Should the user open that file, which enables MS Word macros, the virus then digs into the user’s Microsoft Outlook eMail address book and sends infected documents to the first 50 addresses. Some large corporations and government agencies said the virus clogged and temporarily froze computer eMail systems.

The infected messages didn’t take long to reach school officials. Some officials report having received infected messages from their subscriptions to the Classroom Connect electronic newsletter.

“My eMail was infected on [the first] night with six copies from the same listserve source,” said Sanford Morris, district curriculum coordinator for the Oakfield-Alabama Central School District in Oakfield, N.Y. “While I did open the document, my security warned me about enabling the macros.”

Still not satisfied, however, Morris said he took the precaution of alerting everyone in his address book just in case. He also did a thorough check of his own system using an online anti-virus service.

“As it turned out, my computer was not infected because I did not enable macros,” he said. “All in all it was annoying, but I succeeded in doing no harm to my address book friends.”

Morris wasn’t the only one worried about sending infected messages to his friends. The American Association of School Administrators (AASA) has thousands of friends to be concerned about.

“Our networking guru, Carlos Murray, spent much of the day . . . running anti-virus software on all our terminals and disabling our Microsoft macros to ensure we did not receive the virus or pass it on unwittingly to any of our 15,000 members,” said AASA spokesman Jay Goldman. “I know we would not want to be responsible for passing on a lethal virus such as this to any school districts or their leaders.”

Meanwhile, one of the worst virus reports coming from a school or district doesn’t even involve Melissa.

The Borough Junior-Senior High School in Emerson, N.J., had to shut down all 240 of its classroom computers in April after a student apparently imported a virus called “Win95/CIH,” which infects a computer’s BIOS and overwrites its memory.

The Win95/CIH is considered much more devastating than Melissa.

Still, Melissa has caused its share of problems. People whose last names start with “A” or “B” have been especially beleaguered because most eMail address books are arranged in alphabetical order.

David L. Smith, a network programmer from Aberdeen, N.J., was arrested just one week after the Melissa virus began to spread. Authorities allege that Smith created the virus from his apartment.

He faces several charges, including interruption of public communications, conspiracy to commit the offense, attempt to commit the offense, and third-degree theft of computer service.

Melissa information and help sites

http://www.zdnet.com/zdnn/special/melissavirus.html

http://www.symantec.com/techsupp/mailissa.html

http://www.microsoft.com/security/bulletins/ms99-002.asp

http://www.sendmail.com/blockmelissa.html