Criminal investigation opened in grade-changing scandal at Churchill High

By Michael Birnbaum, Dan Morse and Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 4, 2010; A01

The Montgomery County state's attorney has opened a criminal investigation into a grade-changing scheme at Winston Churchill High School, officials said Wednesday, elevating the digital subterfuge into a major scandal at one of the region's most prestigious public schools.

Police, prosecutors and school officials are examining the actions of at least eight students who allegedly used a USB device to steal teachers' passwords and change the grades of 54 students. Nearly 700 student records have been subpoenaed, and three of the eight students identified as ringleaders have left the school.

"We don't know the scope," said Capt. Paul Starks, a Montgomery County police spokesman. "We're just beginning the investigation." He said detectives are particularly interested in unauthorized use of computers, which can be a crime in Maryland.

The Potomac high school serves an affluent swath of Montgomery County and routinely ranks among the elite schools in the region and nation. The 2,100-student school has a 98 percent graduation rate, 11 points higher than Montgomery's as a whole.

Churchill's average SAT scores were the second highest in the county for the 2008-09 school year, and just 1 percent of its graduating seniors didn't go to college.

The grade-changing scandal, first revealed in January, has drawn concern from colleges. The University of Maryland called the school last month to inquire about the changed grades, said a spokesman for the university, David Ottalini.

But he said the university had been told that the grade-changing did not affect current seniors. He said admissions officials are not worried about the integrity of any applications they have received.

Parents and students in the school community have reacted with disappointment at the allegations. Diana Conway, the mother of two current Churchill students, said that student cheating is not a new issue for any school but that these students went too far.

"This is a big deal. These kids are approaching adulthood. They need to be more responsible," she said. She said the police should investigate.

In a letter sent to parents Wednesday, Churchill Principal Joan C. Benz confirmed that a criminal investigation had been opened. Disciplinary action against the five students who still attend Churchill is "ongoing," she said in the letter.

A source with direct knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of student privacy concerns said the three students who have left the school withdrew voluntarily.

School officials said Wednesday that an internal investigation determined that the grades of 54 students were improperly altered in the first semester of this school year. Criminal investigators have subpoenaed all records from the school system's own investigation of the incident, as well as the grade records of almost 700 students, which will allow them to review all changes to grades over the course of the semester.

Almost 700 families were notified last week that their students' grade records had been turned over to the state's attorney's office.

The school system examined all grade alterations in Churchill's computer database, the vast majority of which were legitimate corrections by teachers, Benz said. But because the changes were part of the investigation, they were included in the subpoena.

The school system is unsure whether all 54 students whose grades were improperly altered knew about the changes, Benz said.

No charges have been filed by the state's attorney's office, and it is unclear whether any will be.

The school will hold a community meeting at 7 p.m. Monday to answer questions about the incident.

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