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Hackers change grades at Texas high school


Four Hightower students being investigated after scores were changed for 60 students.

SUGAR LAND — Four high school students are being investigated on suspicion of breaking into the Fort Bend Independent School District’s computer network and changing the grades of at least 60 students, according to court documents and school officials.

Investigators estimated the financial loss to the school district at more than $190,000, making the case a possible felony.

All four students under investigation are enrolled at Hightower High School, where all the grade changes occurred. School district officials said corrective actions have been taken.

“It is important to know that we have audited all student grades and the district is confident that all grades are accurate,” school district spokeswoman Mary Ann Simpson said Friday.

School officials did not say if all the grades were improved or if the hackers gave some students lower grades. Investigators said the changed grades would have been recorded on report cards and other academic records. Two of the students at the center of the probe had grades changed to higher scores.

Investigators said in the court documents that data in the district’s computer system were lost or altered at four other Fort Bend high schools, although grades were changed only at Hightower. Officials said all data had been recovered.

Three of the four students involved in the investigation are juveniles. No charges have been filed in connection with the case.

School officials declined to say if any disciplinary measures have been taken against the students.

“At the conclusion of the investigation, appropriate disciplinary and or legal action will be taken with any students involved,” Simpson said in a statement.

Simpson said the district is reviewing computer security procedures and will take action to prevent future breaches, but she would not say what specific steps will be taken.

The case is the latest school hacking incident across the United States in recent years. Students from almost every corner of the country at high schools and universities have been caught, and in many cases charged, with crimes for tapping into computer systems and changing grades.

Probe began March 7

The Hightower investigation has been a major topic in the halls and cafeteria of the campus the past few days, students said Friday.

“I’ve heard they were changing student grades,” said Leah Ramirez, a junior.

Court documents show the investigation began March 7, but officials first suspected computer tampering as early as December.

The investigation is being conducted by the district’s police force in conjunction with the Fort Bend County District Attorney’s Office.

The probe got under way when technology officials with the district told police there had been a breach in security of the district’s computer network.

“Fort Bend ISD has reported numerous unauthorized breaches of the network which have resulted in alteration and destruction of data including grade changes,” the documents said.

School district technology officials also told investigators that malicious applications had been discovered on about 80 computers at Hightower High School.

A malicious application can be the introduction of a computer virus or the installation of key logger programs. A key logger records all the strokes on a computer keyboard and then sends a record of those strokes to another computer site.

That discovery launched police on a lengthy cyber trail involving the use of sophisticated detection programs and the issuing of low-tech subpoenas.

Investigators systematically followed clues that led to four students, their computers, cell phones, monitors and numerous other electronic devices.

In addition to the grade changes, the investigation determined that between April 11 and April 14, student grade books were lost from Clements High School.

The probe also revealed that Dulles, Bush and Travis high schools also lost computer data, although the type of information was not disclosed.

Losses put at $191,400

According to court documents, two of the students who are the focus of the probe — one 15 years old and the other 16 — each had multiple changes to their grades.

“These changes went from a lower score to a higher score,” the documents state.

The investigation also estimates the financial loss to the school district at $191,400, but the documents do not explain how officials arrived at that figure.

Breach of computer security is an offense ranging in severity from a Class B misdemeanor to a first-degree felony, depending on the amount of the loss.

State law says if the loss is between $100,000 and $200,000, the crime is a second-degree felony.

A second-degree felony carries a penalty of two to 20 years in prison.

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