School Klutzes 'In Charge' at Kutztown
Thirteen Kutztown Area High School students are facing felony charges for tampering with district-issued laptop computers.Suggesting that the District/School is pursuing felony charges against 13 freshman, sophomores and juniors for using an administrative password, well-known from early in the year, to eventually expand their accessibility to the Internet, is something you do as an "Opie" or "The Beav" teaching moment. You get organized, you send the kids to the local station house to be "processed" and have their parents come and pick them up. It is then followed up by a parents & kids meeting with the principal to mete out appropriate "school punishment."
According to parent testimony and confirmed by an otherwise vaguely-worded letter from the Kutztown Police Department, students got hold of the system's secret administrative password and reconfigured their computers to achieve greater Internet and network access.
Some students used the newfound freedom to download music and inappropriate images from the Internet.
James Shrawder spoke on behalf of a group of parents of six of the accused at a June 20 school board meeting. He said the administration may have railroaded the process by not providing authorities with the whole story.
"That's absurd," Superintendent Brenda S. Winkler said after the board meeting, in response to Shrawder's allegations that the administration withheld information until the end of the school year.
Shrawder asked that the school board act in order to reverse the damage done by the administration.
Shrawder said the secret password "50Trexler," was widely-known among the student body and distributed early in the school year. It allowed between 80 and 100 students to reconfigure their laptops, he said.
The more computer-savvy students began to disable the administrations' ability to spy on the students' computer use. For others, it became a game, trying to outsmart the administration and compete with fellow students who held the secret, Shrawder said.
"I don't know why this is such a big deal," he said. "At no time was the security of the server breached, and I don't know that it has cost the taxpayers any money."
Winkler agreed that the server, where grades and other private records are stored, was never threatened.
Shrawder acknowledged that the students broke school rules, but he and the other parents protested what they believe is the heavy-handed approach to the problem.
Most of the students accused were freshmen, but a few were sophomores and juniors. None of the accused were seniors.
Parents also worried that a felony conviction would permanently damage their child's record for an infraction that may otherwise have resulted in a grounding if it were discovered by a parent.
"I don't think they knew what this could do to their future," said LeAnn Shoemaker, a parent of one of the accused.
Her 15-year-old son John, who will be a sophomore next fall, agreed.
"I knew it was against school policy," he said. "But I didn't know it was a felony."
Winkler said the administration could not comment on student disciplinary action.
"We continue to collaborate with police," she said.
She also noted that charges have not been formally issued and could not comment on the perceived harsh penalty.
School Board President Don C. Vymazal said he sympathized with the parents.
"They are concerned and we would be too," he said.
For the moment, parents were uncertain how to react to the threat of charges against their children. Paperwork is hung up in county juvenile court system and the only indication of the charges is the letter sent to parents and signed by Officer Walter J. Skavinsky of the Kutztown Police Department.
The Skavinsky letter, dated May 31, says the police were contacted on May 2 by members of the high school staff. An investigation found that 13 students had violated the school's permitted use policy and gained greater access to the school's Internet and intranet resources.
Skavinsky consulted with the Berks County District Attorney's office and recommended charges of "Computer Trespass," in violation of PA criminal code section 7615, which carries a third degree felony charge.
The letter tells parents that juveniles charged with a crime "must present themselves in a timely manner to the arresting police department for the purposes of fingerprinting and identification."
The iBook laptops were issued to all high school students last fall in an experimental program with Apple computers.
The program will cost up to $900,000 over the next four years.
Winkler reaffirmed the district's commitment to the program saying it has been "a learning experience."
The District/School gets the "police side" of things done in a day. You don't drag it out for months. But the District/School officials have. For almost a year they had already shown that they were too dense to manage their computer systems beyond a level of 13 year-olds. With the actions they are pursuing they are now showing they are too dense to realize:
- the punishment is way out of proportion to the mischievousness actions of the children,
- the public's perception that these officials make sound and reasonable decisions is degraded,
- they will have to reverse course eventually, and
- having to reverse course destroys the students perception that these are credible and authoritative officials in charge.
Here's hoping the "punishment does fit the crime." For the 'crime' of computer mischievousness, the kids should have to write a 1,000-word essay on why they shouldn't have done this, and get a couple of weeks of detention where they have extra homework to do. (Worst case, they could even lose computer priveleges the next year.) For the crime of stupidity, to ask the officials responsible for pressing felony charges for this long a time to resign would not be uncalled for, though if it is less than that, the punishment really must also include writing 1,000 times, "Think before you do stupid things!"