Does the punishment fit the “crime”? That’s what community members in Kutztown, Pa., are asking after a group of high schoolers now known as the “Kutztown 13” were charged with felonies for bypassing security with school-issued laptops, downloading forbidden internet content, and using monitoring software to spy on district administrators.

The students, their families, and outraged supporters say authorities are overreacting, punishing the kids not for any heinous behavior–no malicious acts are alleged–but rather because they outsmarted the district’s technology workers.

The Kutztown Area School District says it reported the students to police only after detentions, suspensions, and other punishments failed to deter them from breaking school rules governing computer usage.

In Pennsylvania alone, more than a dozen school districts have reported student misuse of computers to police, and in some cases students have been expelled, according to Jeffrey Tucker, a lawyer for the district.

The students “fully knew it was wrong–and they kept doing it,” Tucker said.

A hearing is set for Aug. 24 in Berks County juvenile court, where the 13 have been charged with computer trespassing, an offense state law defines as altering computer data, programs, or software without permission. The youths could face juvenile detention, probation, and/or community service.

As school districts across the nation struggle to keep networks secure from mischievous students who are often more adept at computers than their elders, technology professionals say the Kutztown case offers multiple lessons.

School districts often don’t secure their computer networks well, and students need to be better taught right from wrong on such networks, said internet expert Jean Armour Polly, author of “Net-Mom’s Internet Kids & Family Yellow Pages.”

“The kids basically stumbled through an open rabbit hole and found Wonderland,” Polly, a library technology administrator, said of the Kutztown 13.

The trouble began last fall after the district issued some 600 Apple iBook laptops to every student at this high school about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The computers were loaded with a filtering program that limited internet access. The machines also had software that let administrators see what students were viewing on their screens.

But the students easily cleared those barriers: The administrative password that allowed students to reconfigure computers and obtain unrestricted internet access was taped to the back of the computers.

Using that password, the students began downloading forbidden content. At least one student viewed pornography. Some students also turned off the remote monitoring function and turned the tables on their elders “using it to view administrators” own computer screens.

The administrative password on some laptops was subsequently changed, but some students decrypted it with a password-cracking program.

“This does not surprise me at all,” said Pradeep Khosla, dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s engineering department and director of the school’s cybersecurity program. IT staff at schools often are poorly trained, making it easy for students with even modest computer skills to get around security, he said.

John Shrawder, 15, one of the Kutztown 13, said the charges don’t fit the offense. He fears a felony conviction could hurt his college and job prospects.

“There are a lot of adults who go 10 miles over the speed limit or don’t come to a complete stop at a stop sign. They know it’s not right, but they expect a fine”–not a felony offense, he said.

When contacted by an eSchool News reporter, a spokesperson for the district referred all questions to an official statement on the district’s web site.

In its statement, the district notes that students and their parents were required to sign an acceptable-use policy (AUP) before receiving the laptops.

“Unfortunately, after repeated warnings and disciplinary actions, a few students continued to misuse the school-issued laptops to varying degrees,” the statement says. “When these students escalated their misuse to gaining administrative privileges, the documentation of misuse was turned over to the Kutztown Police, as per the AUP.”

The district added that it “has incurred many hours of technician time in returning the misused laptops to their original images. This additional time meant additional technician hours and less technology coordinator time spent in high school classrooms.”

The students and their supporters have also developed a web site. (For the site of the students and their supporters, the district’s URL, and the full text of the district’s statement, see the information below.)

Links:

Students’ site
http://www.cutusabreak.org

Kutztown Area School District
http://www.kasd.org/

Text of the Kutztown Area School District’s response:

PRESS RELEASE Kutztown Area School District Laptop Policy Violations

August 4, 2005

Kutztown Area High School students received Apple iBooks for educational use in October 2004. Students were introduced to the laptops and Code of Conduct during three-day social studies sessions. In addition, the technology staff worked with classroom teachers to introduce additional educational uses.

Students and parents signed the Code of Conduct and Acceptable Use Policy (AUP) prior to receiving the laptops. The AUP was not new to the students. Beginning in 2002, the Policy was reviewed with all students every year, beginning in fifth grade. It is also posted in computer labs and libraries and discussed at length in the ninth grade Advanced Computer Application and Desktop Publishing/Web Page Design classes. Parents also had an orientation opportunity prior to the rollout of the laptops. The majority of parents of high school students attended one of the four evening sessions where they were introduced to the hardware and software. Parents received an overview of the district’s network capabilities. They were also cautioned that when students take the computers home, Internet availability and appropriate use is the family’s responsibility. Instructions were made available for home Internet hook-up, and a procedures sheet to help parents check the student’s at-home Internet history was also provided. The Code of Conduct and Acceptable Use Policy was previously sent to parents for their signature.

Unfortunately, after repeated warnings and disciplinary actions, a few students continued to misuse the school-issued laptops to varying degrees. The disciplinary actions included detentions, in-school suspensions, loss of Internet access, and loss of computer privileges. After each disciplinary action, parents received either written notification or telephone calls. Some parents felt that the disciplinary actions were ridiculous and even expressed the feeling that their son/daughter should be able to do non-school activities and use the laptop without restrictions. Some students acknowledged that they used their school-issued laptop inappropriately at home rather than their home computer for fear their parent would catch them.

When these students escalated their misuse to gaining administrative privileges, the documentation of misuse was turned over to the Kutztown Police, as per the AUP. The police in turn discussed the student misuse of the school-issued laptops with the District Attorney’s office. The school district administration was informed that a juvenile petition would be brought against the students. The determination of the charges brought by law enforcement is based on the fact that the PA legislature made most computer crimes a third-degree felony. The administration is in continuing conversations with local law enforcement, the District Attorney’s Office, and Juvenile Probation.

The district has incurred many hours of technician time in returning the misused laptops to their original images. This additional time meant additional technician hours and less technology coordinator time spent in high school classrooms and in the other five district buildings.

Overall, the One to One laptop initiative is an overwhelming success. Faculty members incorporated the technology into the curriculum, and student motivation and quality of the students’ educational assignments and projects increased. The program will continue to enrich the education of our students. However, with the increased security added to the system, in conjunction with Apple Computer, there will be additional costs and time to troubleshoot even the most basic computer problem. Students can expect that it will take more time to return their laptop if troubleshooting is necessary. If, however, students conscientiously back up their educational data to the network hard drive, the time to re-image will be approximately the same as in the past.