School IT administrators know that some students will do anything to breach network security systems designed to block inappropriate web sites and keep students on task. When a group of school district IT chiefs met recently to discuss the challenges of reining in students armed with tech savvy and a determination to wreak network havoc, their tales were cautionary—but their advice could prove valuable as computers become more common in K-12 schools.

Nearly a dozen school network administrators met July 1 at the National Education Computing Conference (NECC) in San Antonio, where thousands of educators from across the country came to see the latest in classroom technology. During a breakfast meeting, school district IT chiefs suggested recruiting students to help expose network vulnerabilities and warned of a new threat to campus computer security: "war driving."

Lloyd Brown, director of technology and information services for Virginia’s Henrico County Public Schools, said tech-savvy students in his district recently rallied a group of 30 peers to meet in the quad during their school’s lunch break. Sitting side by side, the students continuously hit the F5 key on their laptops, which refreshes a web page—devouring the school’s internet bandwidth—and eventually broke through the school system’s network filter, allowing students to view pornographic web sites. School IT officials from across the county were concerned about the security breach, Brown said, because laptops are becoming more commonplace—especially in high schools.

Searching for a quick solution, Brown met with officials from 8e6 Technologies, a company that provides internet filtering and reporting solutions for school systems nationwide, and found a fix: Henrico would maintain a detailed log of computers that attempted to view "blocked" web pages. Once the action was logged, that computer’s internet connection was cut off, and school administrators could take disciplinary action against students who tried to subvert the network and its security measures.

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This tactic cut down on incidents of student hacking, but Brown said he wanted to recruit students smart enough to find ways around the school system’s comprehensive security package. After eight students were suspended for 10 days for violating the district’s acceptable-use rules, Brown hired the group and had them work part-time with district IT employees. The students were charged with "finding the weak spots" in Henrico’s network. Once district IT officials saw how students worked their way around the periphery of the network, they quickly made alterations—eliminating vulnerabilities that were being exposed by an increasing number of students.

"They love the status," Brown said when asked how the students reacted when school officials offered them a part-time gig. "They try to figure out where the holes are, and it really helps us."

Shielding students from web sites that could distract from daily lessons has paid off for Henrico County: A study recently released by the school district showed that students who used their laptops the most scored higher in several subjects, including biology and chemistry, although they scored lower in algebra and writing classes. (See "Study: Laptop learning is improving for Henrico students.")

The data were part of a three-year study that aims to show whether, and how, students and teachers in Henrico County use laptops effectively in the classroom. Researchers noted significant improvement among teachers in incorporating laptops into everyday lessons during year two of the study. The study’s first year showed a widespread failure to use the 21st-century tools for students’ benefit.

Jim Culbert, who has served as chief information officer for the Duval County Schools in Jacksonville, Fla., since 1998, told his fellow school IT chiefs about his experience with an eighth grader who was determined to find his way through the district’s network security.

The boy, 13, whom Culbert described as "underprivileged," did not have a computer at home. His only interaction with computers was at school, where he often stayed late to become proficient on the web. The student eventually taught himself how to level devastating proxy attacks on the school district’s security system, giving Culbert and his IT staff headaches as they tried to counter the attacks. Culbert said the student was suspended for five days, but when the boy returned to school, Culbert said he was so impressed by the youth’s willingness to learn about computers that he took him in and had him coached by IT staff.

This wasn’t the first time Culbert encountered acceptable-use violations on school system computer equipment. In 2006, Culbert briefed the Duval County School Board on a rash of students and faculty who used school equipment to view pornography online. Board members asked Culbert to shore up the network, and with products from 8e6 Technologies, IT personnel soon were able to track users’ web use—knowing when a student or faculty member was viewing inappropriate web sites using school equipment.

Several school district IT managers at the NECC meeting were concerned about the trend of linking pornographic web sites to popular blogs visited daily by students. The blog web pages are not blocked, tech chiefs said, because they are not usually included on a school system’s list of prohibited web sites. But many blogs—even if they are not related to pornographic material—include a host of web links that transfer students directly to porn sites, among others, which often damage a network and clog a district’s bandwidth.

School tech chiefs said they feared a student backlash if their favorite non-pornographic web sites were blocked. They added that as more sites include porn links, many sites that were once accessible to students and staff would be blocked accidentally. But as web filtering becomes more sophisticated, network security tools will be able to weed out only the sites that violate strict acceptable-use rules laid out every school year, 8e6 officials said. 

School tech administrators and 8e6 President Paul Myer also discussed a recent trend in student hacking, known popularly as "war driving," or finding and documenting vulnerabilities in Wi-Fi networks. War-driving software is readily available on the internet, such as NetStumbler for Windows or SWScanner for Linux—posing a constant worry for school IT directors.

Students nationwide have stalked in and around their schools, searching for unsecured wireless access points from which they can view web sites that are usually blocked by the district’s filtering system. When these access points are discovered—most often near the edges of a school’s campus—students make a mark on a nearby tree or sidewalk, signaling to other students where they can avoid network security.

Myer said this phenomenon is complicating efforts to provide students with school-issued laptops, known as one-to-one computing initiatives.

"It is a real problem" for one-to-one initiatives, Myer said.

The breakfast meeting ended with a discussion about recovering stolen laptop computers. While network security is an IT administrator’s foremost responsibility, some officials said stolen Mac laptops are always recovered. When a police report is filed by a Mac owner, a camera imbedded in the computer snaps pictures of the perpetrator. One IT chief who did not want to be identified said his school had recovered "100 percent" of the laptops stolen from faculty and staff.

Links:

8e6 Technologies

Duval County Public Schools

Henrico County Public Schools