Central Montcalm confiscates 550 laptops after security tampering

By Ryan Jeltema • Last Updated 7:23 pm on Saturday, December 17, 2011

More than 550 of these laptops distributed to Central Montcalm Middle and High School students have been confiscated after students tampered with security measures.

STANTON —  A Central Montcalm High School student is in hot water for bypassing the district’s security measures on laptop computers issued to all high schoolers and middle schoolers.

A 15-year-old freshman boy is suspended and the subject of a criminal investigation for his alleged role in removing the security software on the student laptops.

Three Central Montcalm Middle School students also are suspended and may be added to the criminal investigation for their alleged roles in the same incident.

A friend of the 15-year-old suspect said some students wanted the security measures turned off so they could install and play a demo version of “Halo,” a popular science fiction video game.

Security software included on all the computers won’t allow new software to be installed without permission from the school.

“We didn’t do it for anything bad,” the suspect’s friend said. “We just wanted to play a game. It’s a pretty fun game.”

The 15-year-old apparently removed the back of the Apple MacBook laptops, removed some hardware and input some codes that reset certain software, allowing students to override the district’s security controls.

Central Montcalm Superintendent Jake Helms said an unknown number of students allowed the 15-year-old or others to reset the security controls on their laptops. The  suspect’s friend estimated more than 100 computers may have been tampered with.

Students received an announcement on Thursday saying they would face no discipline if they admitted to allowing someone to tamper with their laptop. Only 32  students came forward.

The district has issued more than 1,100 Apple MacBook laptops to students in grades six through 12 under a program launched in 2010. About half of those students leave their laptops at school every night.

Helms said the more than 550 students who take their laptops home had their computers confiscated earlier this week. Casair in Stanton will be checking each one during Christmas break to determine which were tampered with and repair them.

Technicians will start with repairing the 32 computers that students admitted to tampering with, then check any of their siblings’ computers and move on from there.

“We’re just going to check and go over them quickly. We’ll reissue them after Christmas,” Helms said. “We just want to get these things cleaned up.”

Helms said the district’s legal counsel has advised administrators to keep close track of costs involved in checking and repairing the laptops. That would allow the district to seek restitution through the court system.

Administrators are continuing to investigate the situation and determine how many students are involved. Helms said the tampering violates the district’s acceptable computer use policy “in about four areas.”

“It’s school property and they know they’re not supposed to do it,” he said.

The Montcalm County Sheriff’s Office has launched a criminal investigation. Undersheriff Mark Bellinger said tampering or interfering with a communication device — which includes computers — is a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Sheriff deputies have interviewed students and administrators, but no arrests have been made.

Deputies forwarded one report regarding the 15-year-old boy’s involvement to the Montcalm County Prosecutor’s Office for review. More reports may be forthcoming if additional suspects are identified.

Bellinger expects to hear within a week whether criminal charges will be filed in the case.

“The school got on top of this early and notified us right away,” he said. “This should be a very quick and easy investigation to get through.”

The suspect’s friend acknowledged the tampering “probably wasn’t right.” But he believes the police investigation is too harsh.

“I didn’t think it was right,” he said. “Maybe it’s right and I’m just misunderstanding something. I don’t want to see him in jail for this.”

Bellinger said the lack of security controls on the computers that were tampered with could lead to catastrophic problems with the district’s computer network if a virus got downloaded.

“This is a serious matter for the school to bypass the integrity of a firewall system,” Bellinger said. “It could be very costly if the security measures were compromised.”

Helms said the tampering issue doesn’t diminish the laptop program’s positive effects for the district. He pointed out a “very tiny minority” of students misused the computers.

“This is a huge success,” Helms said. “It’s disappointing a small group has chosen to violate the use policy. Overall, it’s been a great program. We’re pleased with the results and the educational benefits it’s providing in the classroom.”

Administrators don’t plan to significantly alter the program.

“We’re teaching our kids how to handle a computer, which they’ll be dealing with for the rest of their lives,” Helms said.

The suspect’s friend said he doesn’t like his computer and blames it for his grades falling. He said the computers are distracting in class and detract from learning.

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