[ISN] Hacking puts 4,500 students grades in doubt at Western High

From: InfoSec News (isnat_private)
Date: Thu Jun 06 2002 - 20:08:04 PDT

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    By Bill Hirschman and Jamie Malernee 
    Education Writers 
    Posted June 6 2002 
    Every student's grades at Western High School are being re-examined 
    after a junior admitted hacking into the school's computer and 
    changing classmates' grades for $5, officials said Wednesday.
    Barely a week before graduation and final exams, teachers are being 
    asked to review grades for the 4,500 students at Broward County's 
    second-largest school.
    Two students, described as "computer whizzes," were suspended for 10 
    days this month for violating the district's student code of conduct 
    regulating technology that forbids "vandalizing data [and] 
    infiltrating systems," officials said.
    One suspect's parents said the charges are baseless. The boy who 
    admitted to the hacking is cooperating with investigators, officials 
    The Sun-Sentinel is not naming the students because they are minors 
    and no criminal charges have been filed.
    District investigators are trying to determine whether other students 
    were involved, said Joe Melita, executive director of the districtís 
    investigative unit.
    No one knows how many records were changed, but one student has 
    admitted to altering 20 grades or attendance records, Melita said.
    Assistant Principal Monty Escabi said those grades appeared to be for 
    tests and quizzes, not final grades.
    But all teachers were asked in a memo Tuesday to "review your grades 
    in previously saved documents."
    The Davie school - with satellite campuses in Weston and Sunrise - is 
    one of several in Broward where marks are kept in a centralized 
    computer program called the electronic gradebook. In theory, only 
    guidance counselors and administrators have access to every teachers' 
    individual section of the computer.
    Early indications are that the students may have hacked into the 
    school's computer to get teachers' passwords, Escabi said.
    They likely changed other students' grades, not their own, because 
    they are "very, very smart" kids who fancied themselves as hackers -
    and accomplished just that, Escabi said.
    "These are not your average students," he said. "They've been around 
    computers for a long time, have computers at home, and go to hacker 
    [Web] sites to learn how to do this."
    Anonymous tip came in
    School officials received an anonymous tip about hacking some months 
    ago but were unable to find any signs of tampering, said district 
    spokesman Kirk Englehardt.
    Then a parent called two or three weeks ago naming a specific student 
    who had changed grades, Melita said. The student was questioned and no 
    indication was found that grades had been changed.
    But last week a teacher noticed that a zero she had given a student 
    had been changed to a 100. When that student was questioned, he named 
    another student - not the one questioned weeks earlier.
    "It's obvious that if a kid is doing nothing in class and then he has 
    a 90 [percent], well, it's just quite obvious," Escabi said.
    The first student admitted that he and a friend had been changing 
    grades and attendance records "for some time," Melita said.
    On Monday, the friend was caught trying to use a teacher's password on 
    a computer in the school's library. The codes apparently had been 
    changed and the password didn't work.
    That boy's mother said Wednesday that her son got the password from 
    the first boy and was only trying to check his e-mail on a Web site 
    blocked from normal access. The first student claimed a chorus teacher 
    had given his password to several classmates because 
    Internet-censoring software blocked students from being able to access 
    Web sites they legitimately used for research on classwork.
    Mom defends son
    "He did something very foolish. He should have talked to the teacher," 
    his mother said, concerned that the district is punishing her son too 
    severely without proof. "But my son is a good student. He's very 
    respectful. He has not been in trouble and they're not even giving him 
    the benefit of the doubt."
    She said he didn't know he was doing anything wrong, evidenced by 
    trying to log on "right in front of the librarian."
    The teacher has denied giving the password to anyone, Area 
    Superintendent Verda Farrow said.
    Farrow said the boy was not suspended because of the grade-changing 
    allegation, but because he was using a teacher's password. However, 
    his involvement in the grade changing is under investigation.
    The suspended students will not be able to return to campus this 
    school year, but they will be allowed to take their final exams this 
    In a memo Wednesday, Western's media specialist warned teachers not to 
    give their passwords to students, not to leave their computers turned 
    on and unattended, and to change their password regularly. They were 
    also advised to do weekly printouts of grades as a backup when such 
    incidents occur.
    Since the discovery, the school has contacted the company that 
    provides the electronic grade books. New passwords and additional 
    security measures have been added to prevent future incidents, Escabi 
    Bill Hirschman can be reached at bhirschman@sun-sentinel.com or 
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