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Grand Island student, 16, charged with hacking into school computers

By Barbara O’Brien - News Staff Reporter
Updated: 04/02/08 8:32 AM

Grand Island Central School District officials are proud of their information technology programs, which give students real life experiences.

But real life for one 16-year-old student who hacked into the district computer system means being arrested by state troopers on a charge of unauthorized use of a computer, a misdemeanor.

“Apparently, he hacked into the school computer, and he accessed user names and passwords of school staff,” said Trooper Rebecca Gibbons, public information officer for the State Police.

The student, whom she declined to identify because she said he could receive youthful offender status, was arrested March 20. There is no evidence that the student used the passwords, she said.

“It’s unfortunate that it occurred, but students need to understand that there are limitations to what they can do, from a legal sense. When you crossed over to obtain the password of the staff, you went into a territory that is prohibited by law, and you have to expect you will be identified and you will be held accountable for it,” Superintendent Robert W. Christmann said.

He said it came to the administration’s attention that the system had been compromised in late February.

“We looked at it ourselves initially and could see that it had been, but we had no way of determining who it might have been,” he said, adding that the administration could not investigate the incident on its own and turned to the school resource officer.

Christmann said Trooper Christopher Pyc enlisted the help of State Police computer experts in Batavia. The investigation took about three weeks.

“The State Police have been extremely helpful to us, because their level of understanding far surpasses ours in the public school,” Christmann said.

He said it wasn’t easy to get past the school district’s computer security.

“We’ve taken a look at how the student was able to bypass our security,” he said. “Obviously, people are able to get through any security system, if they’re technologically savvy.”

He said the district has built in additional firewalls to prevent a similar occurrence.

Christmann said he could not discuss how the district disciplined the student.

In suburban Syracuse, several teenagers were charged with felonies for allegedly hacking into the school computer to change their grades. The Onondaga County district attorney reduced charges against three Fayetteville-Manlius High School students to misdemeanors, so they could be sentenced to conditional discharges.

Erie County District Attorney Frank J. Clark said he has not seen many cases of students hacking into school computers. He said it’s possible the Grand Island teenager, if he has no prior charges, also could be given an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal.

The superintendent said the incident comes as several high school students are poised to help the Town of Grand Island upgrade its Web site. It’s part of the district’s efforts to broaden students’ experiences.

“We have some students who are really thrilled to practice what the great majority of our students do, and that is be very helpful,” he said. “Ninety-nine percent of the students are never going to be a problem.”