Students at Potomac school hack into computers; grades feared changed

By Michael Birnbaum and Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 29, 2010

Students at a Potomac high school hacked into the school's computer system and changed class grades, according to sources briefed by the school's principal, and officials are investigating how widespread the damage might be.

The incident prompted an emergency staff meeting at Churchill High School, a top school in one of the nation's premier public systems, and a recorded phone message to parents Wednesday saying that grades might have been corrupted by the hackers.

The extent of the apparent security breach was not immediately clear. Teachers at the school were being asked to review their grades for discrepancies. The students involved used a computer program to capture passwords from at least one teacher, according to school sources familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation.

"We are investigating an allegation that some students compromised our grading system and may have changed some grades," said Dana Tofig, a spokesman for the school system. "We're in the process of interviewing students."

He said teachers discovered a problem earlier this week and brought it to the attention of the school's administration. According to one source, an information technology department worker came to the school this week to interview students.

"We take the security of student info and data very, very seriously," he said. "If it's found that students did breach the system and change the grades, it would be a very, very serious violation."

At an emergency meeting Wednesday morning, Churchill's principal, Joan C. Benz, informed teachers and staff members that students obtained access to the grading system and modified grades, according to three sources familiar with the meeting, two of whom were present.

Benz did not respond to a phone message left at her home Thursday night.

Teachers were told to check grades for anomalies and correct them before first semester report cards are released Feb. 3, according to the sources. But because teachers at the school no longer keep separate log books of their grades, it might be difficult to go back and find a student's original grade, the sources said.

Some teachers are careful to print out grades immediately after entering them in the system, one source said, but if grades were left on the computer system for any length of time before they were printed out, they could have been modified even on the printed version.

School officials urged Churchill teachers to change their passwords immediately and rotate them more often, the sources said.

The 2,100-student school has a 98 percent graduation rate, 11 points higher than Montgomery County as a whole. Its average SAT scores were 1820 out of a possible 2400 in the 2008-09 school year, the second highest in the county.

News of the incident swept through hallways Thursday, students said.

"There's obviously a lot of rumors going around the school," said Churchill senior Kelsey O'Donnell, 18. "They asked one of my friends if she wanted her grades changed, and she said no. . . . When she found out that they got in trouble, she was so happy that she wasn't a part of it."

Staff writers Daniel de Vise, Mark Giannotto, Donna St. George and Preston Williams contributed to this report.

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