Students Use Technology Against School

The Kutztown 13 is a group of Pennsylvania high school students who face felony charges for computer trespassing. The students used school-issued laptops to spy on district administrators, and access outlawed sites. Parents and students say the district is overreacting, but school officials say they haven't been able to stop the practice with regular discipline.

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Around the country some high school students are being offered laptop computers to use at home and at school. But the offers come with responsibilities, as 13 students in the town of Kutztown, Pennsylvania, found out. They were threatened with juvenile felony charges for hacking into their laptops. NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

Here in the final days of summer vacation in Kutztown, high school students have to report to the library to pick up their school-issued Apple iBooks. Senior Corey Booze(ph) emerges from the building and tosses his laptop into the back seat of his car. He won't say what he did with his computer last year, but this year he's not taking any chances.

COREY BOOZE (High School Senior): See, I'm just going to follow the rules and get through my senior year under the sheets or whatnot.

SMITH: No one wants a replay of what happened last spring. Administrators claim that up to 80 computer-savvy students at the high school found and used administrator passwords to alter their computers. Some of the students bypassed Internet filters and downloaded banned music and images from the Internet. Some installed chat programs that weren't allowed or spied on administrators. Last May, 13 of the students were reported to police and threatened with computer trespass, a third-degree juvenile felony. Just last week attorney Michael Boland(ph) had to take his 15-year-old client in for processing.

Mr. MICHAEL BOLAND (Attorney): I think my client is quietly outraged. I mean, he's a very shy fellow. He's only 15. He can't drive yet. He's shocked. He was very scared and nervous when we went to the intake interview.

SMITH: But there's hope for his client. After weeks of international tension about the severity of the charges against the students, the district attorney's office is offering most of the 13 students informal adjustments, meaning they would not be charged in return for probation, a written apology and community service. If the kids accept the offers, there likely won't be juvenile hearings to solve the legal question: Did the students really commit any crime? James Shrawders, an uncle of one of the accused, says no. The students, he says, never hurt the computer system, never altered their grades or crashed the server. They simply changed the settings.

Mr. JAMES SHRAWDERS (Uncle of Accused): They have it for nine months. They take it into their bedrooms for nine months. They're in possession of it and of everything in it, and they want to see how it works. They want to make it work. They know it will do chat, they want to make it do chat. They know it can play music, they're going to want to make it play music. Quite a temptation.

SMITH: School administrators preferred not to speak on the record. Their attorney, Jeffrey Tucker, says that the school made the computer policies very clear through contracts, public meetings and school disciplinary actions. Tucker says the standards for school-issued laptops are the same as for any school-issued material.

Mr. JEFFREY TUCKER (Attorney for School Administrators): This is an educational tool for students. It's provided for at public expense. And I think the public has a right to expect that tools that it pays for are used appropriately and not used personally by either, in this case, students, or if employees, for example, have access to a vehicle and they can take it home at night, that doesn't allow them to commit crimes with the vehicle just because they were allowed to take it home at night.

SMITH: The debate over Internet filters on computers and the struggle over how much freedom students should have is at least a decade old. But the recent trend of offering laptops that students can use in their homes has raised the question in a different context. Don Knezek is the CEO of the International Society for Technology in Education. He says that each district has a different threshold for personal use. Some restrict even e-mail on school computers. Others offer almost total freedom. The key, Knezek thinks, is involving the students in the crafting of the policies.

Mr. DON KNEZEK (CEO, International Society for Technology and Education): Students today, our school-aged individuals, are having major impact on decisions in the home. And if you bring them in and allow them no decision-making at the school level, then, you know, that's a recipe for trouble.

SMITH: Whether any Kutztown students end up with criminal penalties or not, the school district did send its message loud and clear. Senior Ian DeLong(ph) says the students have been talking about this all summer long.

IAN DeLONG (High School Senior): I don't think anyone's going to be doing anything at all this year with the computers that they shouldn't be doing 'cause they know that the school will go that extra step. But it's not necessary to punish them.

SMITH: One parent said he sat his son down and made him read the Pennsylvania criminal code on computer use before he was allowed to pick up his laptop. Robert Smith, NPR News.

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