Alleged student computer hacking and pornographic Web site viewing in the Henrico County, Va., schools have led officials there to tighten security and access to students’ laptop computers. The computers were put in the youngsters’ hands as part of a much-heralded $18.6 million district initiative put in place this school year.
Starting Feb. 1, high school students in the Richmond suburb will turn in their Apple iBook laptops so school technicians can strip away class-disrupting functions such as file-sharing and instant messaging, and features that allow students to load games and music into the machines.
“That was a major use of our bandwidth—students passing songs and movies was eating up our network badly,” said Charles Stallard, the director of technology for the 42,000- student district.
Once the students get their laptops back two weeks later, they will be allowed to log on to only three “environments": school, home, and testing. If they don’t log into those environments, they will be locked out of certain computer functions, school officials said.
The district is also considering switching to a better Internet filter.
The planned changes to the laptops stem partly from two troubling incidents.
Last fall, several dozen students were caught downloading and sharing pornographic Web sites. The high schoolers were suspended and their laptops were taken away.
In December, a 16-year-old student allegedly hacked into teachers’ and students’ iBooks, created an interim report card for himself, and passed pirating software to other students.
Another student may have been indirectly involved in that second incident, and both could face criminal charges. Local police are investigating the case to determine whether the students violated laws related to invasion of privacy and grade altering.
The student hacker, a J.R. Tucker High School student who dubbed himself “The Matrix,” was tracked down using technology- security software.
He has been suspended and faces expulsion, school officials said. The second student, also from Tucker High, was suspended as well.
But those incidents aren’t the only reason the iBooks are being recalled, district officials say. “We’re also making them easier to use,” Mr. Stallard said.
The recall is one of two annual upgrades. Computer technicians are doubling the iBooks’ memory this time around, for example, and checking the laptops’ hardware.
The district has faced closer scrutiny and some criticism in the community because of the alleged misuse of the student computers, but Superintendent Mark A. Edwards defended the four- year laptop initiative, which will put 23,000 computers into the hands of middle and high school students.
“With 11,000 students having 24-7 access, the potential for [misuse] was certainly there,” Mr. Edwards said. “But we’ve seen consistent and productive use of the iBooks by the vast majority of students.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2002 edition of Education Week as Student Misuse of School Laptops Forces District to Tighten Access