August 10th, 2005, 10:07 PM
Kutztown 13 (High School "hackers") Face Felony Charges
Kutztown 13 Face Felony Charges
KUTZTOWN, Pennsylvania -- They're being called the Kutztown 13 -- a group of high schoolers charged with felonies for bypassing security with school-issued laptops, downloading forbidden internet goodies 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 begs to differ. It 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. "Parents thought we should reward them for being creative. We don't accept that."
A hearing is set for Aug. 24 in Berks County juvenile court, where the 13 have been charged with computer trespass, an offense state law defines as altering computer data, programs or software without permission.
The youths could face a wide range of sanctions, including juvenile detention, probation and 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 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 Apple iBook laptops to every student at the high school about 50 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The computers were loaded with a filtering program that limited internet access. They also had software that let administrators see what students were viewing on their screens.
But those barriers proved easily surmountable: The administrative password that allowed students to reconfigure computers and obtain unrestricted internet access was easy to obtain. A shortened version of the school's street address, the password was taped to the backs of the computers.
The password got passed around and students began downloading such forbidden programs as the popular iChat instant-messaging tool.
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.
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