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Laptop hijinks, or cyber crime?

KUTZTOWN, Pa. -- They're being called the Kutztown 13 -- high-schoolers charged with felonies for bypassing security with school-issued laptops, downloading forbidden Internet goodies, and using monitoring software to spy on administrators.

The students, their families, and outraged supporters say authorities are overreacting, punishing the kids not for any heinous behavior -- no malicious acts are alleged -- but rather because they outsmarted the school district.

The Kutztown Area School District begs to differ. It says it reported the students to police only after detentions, suspensions, and other punishments failed to deter them from breaking school rules governing computer usage.

The students ''fully knew it was wrong and they kept doing it," said Jeffrey Tucker, a lawyer for the district.

A hearing is set for Aug. 24 in juvenile court, where the 13 have been charged with computer trespass, an offense state law defines as altering computer data, programs, or software without permission.

As school districts across the nation struggle to keep networks secure from mischievous students who are often more adept at computers than their elders, technology professionals say the case offers multiple lessons.

School districts often don't secure their computer networks well, and students need to be better taught right from wrong on such networks, said Jean Armour Polly, author of ''Net-mom's Internet Kids & Family Yellow Pages."

''The kids basically stumbled through an open rabbit hole and found Wonderland," Polly, a library technology administrator, said of the Kutztown 13.

The trouble began last fall after the district issued some 600 Apple iBook laptops, one to every student at the high school. The computers were loaded with a filtering program that limited Internet access. They also had software that let administrators see what students were viewing on their screens.

But the administrative password that let students reconfigure computers and have unrestricted Internet access was easy to obtain. A short version of the school's address, the password was taped to the backs of the computers.

Students began downloading such forbidden programs as the popular iChat instant-messaging tool. At least one student viewed pornography. Some students also turned off the remote monitoring function and turned the tables on their elders -- using it to view administrators' own computer screens.

The administrative password on some laptops was subsequently changed but some students got hold of that one, too.

''This does not surprise me at all," said Pradeep Khosla, Carnegie Mellon University's director of cyber security.

IT staff at schools are often poorly trained, he said.

Fifteen-year-old John Shrawder, one of the Kutztown 13, complained that the charges don't fit the offense. He fears a felony conviction could hurt his college and job prospects.

''There are a lot of adults who go 10 miles over the speed limit or don't come to a complete stop at a stop sign. They know it's not right, but they expect a fine," not a felony conviction, he said.

The district isn't backing down. It points out that students and parents sign a code of conduct that contained warnings of legal action.

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