School officials in Henrico County, Va., are recalling all 11,800 laptop computers given to the district’s high school students in order to install upgrades and security devices aimed at curbing student abuses.

The measure comes after a few highly publicized incidents of abuse have tarnished what officials last year hailed as a groundbreaking program to provide Apple iBooks to all 23,000 middle and high school students in the district.

Since the laptops were handed out to Henrico County high school students last fall, some 50 to 60 students have been disciplined for downloading pornography, officials say. Also, police are investigating whether two students used the computers to hack into the computers of teachers and fellow classmates to alter grades.

The computers will be collected from the suburban county’s seven high schools beginning Feb. 1. It will take up to two weeks to install the upgrades, officials say.

“It’s going to create a more structured system for school use,” said Superintendent Mark Edwards of the recall.

During the servicing, such widely abused functions as games and music downloads will be eliminated or heavily restricted, said Charles Stallard, director of technology for the district.

“Basically we’re creating three separate environments: home, school, and testing,” Stallard, who has overseen much of the laptop initiative, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Students will be required to log on to one of the three environments each time they turn on the computer, and failure to select the correct environment will lock them out of certain functions, Stallard said.

Students also won’t be able to use the computers’ file-sharing function, except to turn in assignments to teachers’ machines. Instant messaging will be limited to home use.

In addition, loading any new games or software will be impossible without having the additions made by county technology personnel.

When the $18.5 million, four-year deal to lease the computers was announced last spring, it was believed to be the largest such program of its kind. But a $37 million deal between Apple and Maine state officials, announced earlier this month, aims to provide laptops to that state’s 33,000 seventh and eighth graders within the next two years.

Edwards emphasized that an overwhelming majority of the district’s students have used the laptops responsibly.

“We knew there would be challenges, but we still see the benefits every day for children throughout the community,” he told the Times-Dispatch in December. “Obviously, we’re paying very careful attention” to the abuses.

Links:

Henrico County Public Schools
http://www.co.henrico.va.us/schools

Apple for Education
http://www.apple.com/education