The case against the “Kutztown 13”–a group of Pennsylvania high school students charged with felonies for tinkering with their school-issued laptop computers–seems to be ending mostly with a whimper.

In meetings with students over the last several days, the Berks County, Pa., juvenile probation office has quietly offered the students a deal in which all charges would be dropped in exchange for 15 hours of community service, a letter of apology, a class on personal responsibility, and a few months of probation.

“The probation department realizes this is small potatoes,” said William Bispels, an attorney representing nearly half the accused students.

The 13 initially were charged with computer trespass and computer theft, both felonies, and could have faced a wide range of sanctions, including juvenile detention.

The Kutztown Area School District said it reported the students to police only after detentions, suspensions, and other punishments failed to deter them from breaking school rules governing computer usage. (See “Felony charges for computer-abusing kids.”)

But the students, their families, and outraged supporters around the nation said that authorities overreacted, punishing the kids not for any horrible behavior but because they outsmarted the district’s technology workers.

The trouble began last fall after the school district issued some 600 Apple iBook laptops to every student at the high school, about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia.

Students easily breached security and began downloading forbidden internet programs, such as the popular iChat instant-messaging tool. Some students also turned off a remote monitoring function that let administrators see what students were viewing on their screens–or used the monitoring function to view administrators’ own computer screens.

School district officials and prosecutors did not return phone messages left Aug. 25 and had not been heard from by press time.

In legal terms, the students have been offered an “informal adjustment”–the least severe form of punishment.

Bispels said a few students are thinking about refusing the deal because they don’t feel they have broken any laws. “A lot of these parents would like to fight this on principle, but it’s hard to put the kids at risk on principle,” he said.

Mike Boland, who represents one student, said his client likely will accept the offer. “It doesn’t require my client to acknowledge he is guilty of anything,” he said.

“It’s about as mild as you can go,” agreed James Shrawder, whose 15-year-old nephew was among those offered the deal. “It’s more of a face-saving measure.”

One student who has had prior dealings with the juvenile probation office was not offered a deal. That case is expected to proceed.


Students’ web site

Kutztown Area School District’s response