By Maria Sacchetti
April 29, 2006
Private industry long ago adopted safeguards against hacking, but
public schools, which just began putting student records online in
recent years, are only starting to recognize their vulnerability.
The allegations that a student gained access to a teacher's computer
at Boston Latin School and saw tests and student records apparently
took officials by surprise. Boston Public Schools had begun to talk
about improving computer security at all schools before the alleged
incident, but immediately tightened security afterward.
''For lack of a better term, this is sort of a test case to figure out
where security breaches might be," said Jonathan Palumbo, a school
Lexington High officials are debating whether to e-mail report cards
to parents, weighing the convenience against the security risks.
Brookline High forced teachers to make their passwords tougher to
guess this year after students broke into the computer system to
''You can't assume that you're smarter than the kids about computers,"
said Michael Frantz, assistant headmaster at Brookline High. ''It
certainly is a wake-up call. . . . This kind of thing can really
happen to us."
Decades ago, public schools were untroubled with computer security.
But now 95 percent of the state's classrooms are wired for the
Internet, according to the state Department of Education. Teachers
store grades on the Internet. Clerks track student absences and
tardiness online. Some even share that with parents: letting them
check online to make sure their child went to school or to monitor
A year ago, Lexington High investigated a student on allegations that
he altered his attendance records, which had been posted online. The
school now wants to e-mail report cards, but officials said they are
not sure whether the school has protected itself well enough against
''I really worry about that. We're certainly behind," said Bill Cole,
a dean at the school. ''We definitely have a population here that
would see it as a challenge here and break in."
This school year, Brookline High officials suspended the two students
it caught breaking into the computer system and changing grades.
''You can't make a guarantee that it wouldn't happen again," Frantz
said. ''We're more careful, and things are tighter than they were. I
think it would be a lot more difficult for it to happen."
Charlie Lyons, superintendent and director at Shawsheen Valley
Technical High School, in Billerica, said he spends $50,000 a year on
computer updates and security. He also hired a director of computer
services because the school has nearly 700 computers.
''There's no system that's unbreakable. There's going to be some kid
from MIT that's probably going to . . . be able to break into any
system in the world," Lyons said.
Francis Cahill, who taught Latin at Boston Latin School for 33 years
before retiring in June 2005, said more teachers who used to keep
grades on paper and tests in files are relying on computers.
Students are ''a lot more sophisticated than a lot of the teachers,"
said Cahill, who had never heard of a student breaking into the
school's computer system during his time at Latin. ''Kids are always
looking for a leg up no matter what school they're in. It doesn't
surprise me at all.
''I would guess that in any kind of school where kids are trying to
get into college, the same kind of thing could happen."
Tracy Jan of the Globe staff contributed to this report.
=A9 Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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