Court Backs Student-Hacker Suspect’s Discipline, Mother’s Firing

By Mark Walsh — March 10, 2011 2 min read
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A federal appeals court has upheld the discipline of a Mississippi student who was accused of hacking into the computer system of his middle school and initiating a brief “denial of service” attack.

The panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, in New Orleans, also ruled against the boy’s mother, who was fired from her job as a school secretary after protesting the action taken against her son and threatening to sue the school district.

The unanimous March 10 decision came in the case of an 8th-grader at Pontotoc County Middle School who used his mother’s computer at a nearby elementary school to e-mail various computer technicians in the district about key logging, hacking, and denial-of-service attacks. The boy’s interests raised suspicions among district computer technicians, with one warning his superiors, “This student has issues and in my opinion needs to be off our network and SURELY does not need to be using his mother’s
computer to send emails.”

One morning in 2008, the school district’s computer network experienced problems, and officials suspected the student was behind them.

According to court papers, school officals told the boy that because of his hacking, his mother could lose her job, he could go to jail, and his plans for college were over. The boy denied involvement with the hacking. The school district suspended the boy, citing his possession of a key logger program and his admission that he had bypassed security on a school computer to set up a DOS prompt. He was later reassigned to an alternative school.

After teachers expressed concern about exposure of their personal information, the school district reassigned the boy’s mother from the elementary school secretary’s job to one that did not involve access to computers.

This led to complaints from the mother that her son did not receive due process and threats of a lawsuit, which resulted in the district dismissing the mother.

The family sued over the boy’s discipline and the mother’s dismissal, but they lost in both a federal district court and the 5th Circuit panel.

In its unanimous opinion in Harris v. Pontotoc County School District, the panel said the boy and his parents were adequately informed of the charges against him and given numerous opportunities to tell their side of the story.

“That process was sufficent” under the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1975 decision in Goss v. Lopez, the 5th Circuit court said.

“The truth of these charges is not the question in evaluating whether Goss has been satisfied,” the court said. “Instead, the issue is whether [the boy] was adequately informed of the specific charges from which the suspension derived, and whether he was given an opportunity to present his side of the story.”

The court also rejected the mother’s claim that she was retaliated against for her complaints in violation of her First Amendment free speech rights. The court said the mother was not speaking about matters of public concern.

“The evidence in the record shows only a mother who complained about the treatment her child received in a discrete incident and an employee who was upset at being reassigned,” the court said. “Both matters are personal.”

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.