What we're learning from suburban teen who hacked grading system: If at first you don't succeed, file, file a lawsuit

Earlier this month, the Tribune reported that the Glenbrook North high school student expelled for attempting to hack into the school’s grading system had filed a lawsuit challenging his punishment.

Less than a month after it was filed, he’s back in the classroom.  Should we be surprised?

A judge ordered that he be allowed to return to school while the case is under further consideration.  A hearing is scheduled for August to determine whether the student can attend school for the 2017-2018 academic year.  (His expulsion was to last through his junior year).

The sophomore was involved in a plot to hack into the school’s grading system, sending fake emails to teachers to access their passwords.  While his attempts to enter the system appear to have been unsuccessful, whoever else was involved had better luck.  Only two teachers fell for the scam, but that was enough to allow the culprits to view and change several students’ grades.

A relative took legal action on behalf of the teen, calling the expulsion “unreasonable and oppressive.”  The suit also alleges that the district violated state laws by not taking other factors into account and failing to consider less punitive measures.

Typically, expulsion is handed down only when a student’s behavior causes significant disruption to the school environment.

The district justified its actions, claiming that the disruption came in the form of spending hours trying to safeguard the system so it would prove impenetrable if  anyone tried hacking it again.  Teachers were probably faced with the daunting task of fixing their records, it that was even possible.

School officials noted that this case sets a precedent, and they wanted to send a message loud and clear that students can’t engage in such behavior without severe consequences.  Creating a deterrent to such unethical activity took priority.  Otherwise, students wouldn’t take it seriously.

School officials also alleged that the breach compromised their credibility.

Running counter to the school’s stance, the family contended that the student’s behavior was not “egregious,” that he had no prior disciplinary record, and that expulsion would “hurt his chances of getting into college.”

Um, no.  He’s hurting his chances of getting into college.  He should be held fully accountable for his actions, not only for the sake of fairness, but because it’s better for him to learn his lesson now rather than later.

How much more serious would the consequences be if he managed to commit a security breach or similar misdeed in college?  He’d likely be kicked out of school permanently, and possibly face criminal charges, too.  I’d like to think he’s less likely to try something like this down the road if he’s taken to task for it now.

Even if the punishment had been a bit over the top, what surprised me was the family’s response.

I think if my child had committed such an act, the last thing on my mind would be legal action in his defense.  I think I would probably be too humiliated to even ask for the punishment to be rescinded, much less file a lawsuit.  I would have a hard time asking the school to let him back in after he had the audacity to try to access teachers’ records.

Oppressive?  To be honest, I thought it was rather generous of them to allow him to come back for his senior year.  He shouldn’t expect to be entitled to anything from the school.

Clearly, the family doesn’t see what he did as all that bad.  Perhaps it pales in comparison to the stories we hear about teens bullying or assaulting their peers and broadcasting it on social media. Or about disadvantaged youth joining gangs and selling drugs.

The suit claims that his role was minor, and that he sent the fake emails to prove that attempting to access the system wouldn’t really work.

But that shouldn’t give him a pass.  Even if that’s true (which I doubt, highly), why would he take that risk, jeopardizing his future for…what?

Though his actions didn’t cause the kind of fallout that results from violent crime, we still need to consider what’s involved, and ultimately, what’s at stake.

Despite his status as a minor, he’s still old enough to know right from wrong.  I’m not sure exactly how much of a role he had in the plot, but he admitted to sending two emails to teachers with a fake login link that would give him access to their passwords so he could either get into the grading system himself, or assist his friends in doing it.  He was intentionally deceiving teachers and knowingly involving himself in the scheme.

As the district claims, they need to set a precedent to discourage students from engaging in that kind of behavior in the future. If the school’s credibility has been called into question over this,  it would compromise its credibility further by not taking a firm stand against the breach.

The disciplinary team reviewing the case admitted that they recommended allowing him to return to school sooner if he had met conditions like taking an online ethics course, attending a private alternative school, and completing home tutoring that would have been provided by the district.  The report didn’t indicate that he had been offered those options.

It was probably not the easiest thing to determine what course of action was most appropriate, since something like this had probably never been done before.  Perhaps school administrators wanted to give themselves ample time to fix the grading system before he was allowed back on campus.

To some extent, I can understand the family’s reaction, but I don’t agree with the way they’ve tried to excuse his behavior.  Do they think he deserves any consequences?  They seem to only consider what the school “did” to him, and not how he engaged in a plot not only to mislead teachers, but to infringe on students’ privacy by trying to obtain access to their grades.

How effective would an online ethics course be?  Offering it as a condition to soften the punishment just seems like a formality.  In any event, I doubt some required course is going to transform him.  It sounds like a meaningful way to take action, but it’s not enough to have an impact.

Perhaps the school erred on this one by not following protocol, but it’s easier to relax policies that are too stringent than to try to establish authority when discipline has been lax.  I hope the other students involved were disciplined accordingly.

I’m just concerned that what the student has leaned is that when you’ve done the crime and don’t want to do the time, just file a lawsuit.

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