Potomac students implicated in grade-changing start group to fight peer pressure

In a public meeting with parents, officials at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac sought to ease parents' concerns over a student grade-changing scheme led by at least eight students last January.
By Michael Birnbaum
Thursday, September 9, 2010

Two Potomac high school students who were implicated last winter in a scheme to change grades by hacking into school computers have started a student group devoted to combating the ill effects of peer pressure.

The two students, who are seniors at Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, unveiled the group during the school's morning announcements last week, according to several students and parents at the school. In the announcement, the two students expressed sorrow for their actions, although they did not go into specifics.

The school system discovered in January that at least eight Churchill students improperly accessed an online grading system and tampered with their own grades. Those of at least 46 others were also changed by some of the eight. Montgomery County police alarmed by the incident opened a criminal investigation, which is ongoing and nearing its end, police spokeswoman Lucille Baur said.

The hacking shocked the Churchill community, which is more accustomed to accumulating accolades than combating cheating allegations.

"It's not fun to see your school that you hold in very high regard dragged through the mud like it was," said Susi Eslami, vice president of the school's parent association and the mother of a Churchill junior.

She said she was happy with the school's response and trusted that if the county had determined that some of the students should be back in school, that was fine with her.

"They're kids, they do things, and I think the school did the best they could under the circumstances," she said.

The 2,100-student school serves an affluent swath of Montgomery and routinely ranks among the elite schools in the region and the country. In the 2008-09 school year, it had a 98 percent graduation rate, 11 percentage points higher than the county's, and just 1 percent of its students didn't go on to college.

Churchill Principal Joan C. Benz told parents in March that none of the students accused of leading the scheme were attending classes and that three had left the school system entirely. With the return to school of at least two of the students who took part in the scheme, that situation has changed, but school officials declined to comment Wednesday about the enrollment status of any of the students, citing confidentiality rules about discipline issues, and refused to say what punishment, if any, had been administered.

Montgomery students who have been expelled can appeal their expulsion to a review board composed of school officials, said school system spokesman Dana Tofig.

The parents of one of the students declined to comment or make their son available to discuss his student group, called Teen Talks. The parents of the other student did not return phone calls.

In the video announcement of the new group, the two students said they had made mistakes and hoped to use their experiences to help other students avoid getting into trouble, said students who watched the video and parents who had been briefed on it.

Experts said the group might be a good way to take something positive from the experience, provided it is being done in earnest.

"There may be a tendency to try to minimize, rationalize, spin, get through it quickly, and that's a missed opportunity," said Peter A. Sturtevant Jr., director of the D.C.-based School Counseling Group. Sturtevant helps troubled students find college placement, among other services. He said that there was no one way to recover from problematic behavior but that the Churchill group had potential.

"If they're really willing to grapple in a meaningful process with what they can learn from this . . . I think they can express it and hope there's a receptive audience on the other side," he said.

Staff researcher Meg Smith and staff writer Donna St. George contributed to this report.

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