About 50 Berkeley High School students will be suspended and up to four could be expelled for a recently discovered scheme in which students hacked into the school's attendance system and sold cleared absences to classmates, school administrators said today.
School staff discovered the breach in the school's attendance system while reviewing student data a few weeks ago, according to Principal Pasquale Scuderi.
Administrators found that several student accounts in the school's attendance database, called Powerschool, appeared to have unauthorized changes to their attendance records last fall.
Further investigation revealed that at least four students got their hands on an administrative password that allows access to Powerschool, then logged in and cleared absences or tardy marks on classmates' records for a fee, Scuderi said.
The principal did not disclose how much money the students exchanged, but said an investigation by district technical staff and administrators showed that about 50 students participated in the scam.
"The degree of involvement ranged from what we now know was a few students literally selling the clearance of absences to those who may have accepted having a few absences or tardies cleared by a friend or acquaintance who gained access," the principal said in a statement.
Scuderi said he believes the expulsion of those students who launched the scam is an appropriate response, considering the number of administrative hours spent to investigate the scheme as well as the "flagrant dishonesty exhibited".
The principal said that while he is disappointed in the students, he hopes the incident will be a teachable moment for staff and parents and is encouraged by current attendance records for the school's 3,200 students.
The school's attendance record rose to 94 percent for the first seven months of the school year compared to 92 percent during the same period last year.
Over the past year, the school has made attendance a top priority, hiring a Dean of Attendance to oversee the school's attendance process and crack down on chronic truancy, the principal said.
Scuderi credited the school's addition this year of a Dean of Attendance as well as the school's teachers for keeping attendance levels high. The principal's full letter is below:
Dear Staff and Parents:
I am writing to update you on two issues related to attendance at Berkeley High School, one a negative and the other an emerging positive.
First the negative so we can close on a high note.
As many of you know attendance was a major focus coming in to the school year at BHS. Working with additional resources provided by district staff we reorganized and shifted resources to bring staffing in our attendance office to a level that we believe is the minimum level necessary to adequately track and process attendance for the nearly 3200 students on our campus. In addition, this staffing has also allowed us to move forward with interventions for those who are chronically truant.
The addition of an administrative position, specifically a Dean of Attendance, to oversee the attendance process at BHS and to implement interventions and consequences outlined by state law has also proven quite helpful. Coordinated truancy sweeps with Student Services and the Police Department have begun to make the area immediately around the campus less hospitable to truant students while our participation in the formal processes outlined in the Education Code have increased as has direct personal contact with families of truant students via mail and personal calls from counselors and administrators.
The addition of the staffing and the newer, more efficient culture in our attendance office has, under the direction of our Dean of Attendance, Daniel Roose, insured that attendance data is being reviewed far more consistently and in greater depth than it has at Berkeley High School in recent memory.
That data analysis some weeks back lead to a discovery that several student accounts in our student database, the product we use is called Powerschool, appeared to have had inappropriate or unauthorized changes to their attendance records.
These irregularities triggered a deeper analysis of our attendance data and a initiated a concentrated inquiry. With the assistance of technical staff from the district, administrative staff soon learned that at least four students obtained the password of a staff member. We prefer not to share the technical aspects of how the password was obtained, but the security issues that led to the compromise have been addressed, resolved, and we continue to monitor the system through regular checks.
As the investigation widened we had reasonable suspicion that approximately 50 students had unauthorized adjustments made to their records. The degree of involvement ranged from what we now know was a few students literally selling the clearance of absences to those who may have accepted having a few absences or tardies cleared by a friend or acquaintance who gained access.
In addition to the flagrant dishonesty exhibited by this small portion of our student body, one of the more trying aspects of this was how much administrative time subsequently needed to be spent on interviewing students and following up on this behavior instead of the school investing that administrative time in things like classroom observations, student support, and true instructional leadership.
We have to keep in context the fact that given the size of our school it was roughly 1% of our student population who made these poor decisions, but nevertheless it still is a vastly unacceptable number of kids who made regrettable decisions.
As administrators have met with the students involved we have emphasized and reiterated a deep and genuine hope that they use this incident as a window for deep and earnest reflection on how they see themselves through these actions in relation to the values of honesty and integrity. Suspensions have been issued in most cases and a few students will be put up for expulsion.
Some have questioned our use of suspension in this matter, yet we see this altering of teacher and school record keeping as a level of dishonesty that violates our community agreements and expectations of our kids. When one violates our agreements and fails to meet our expectations to this extent we feel justified in issuing a consequence that temporarily revokes the privilege of that student being a part of the school community.
Time off during a suspension certainly makes staying current in your classes more difficult and inconvenient, but we are convinced that it can be done. Students may have to work harder to stay in contact with teachers or friends in their classes to stay current during the suspension, and this is perhaps one of the chief lessons that we hope students involved will take away; namely, that when you make bad decisions in life they often yield inconvenient or difficult results and subsequently make it harder to meet obligations and responsibilities that you still have to meet.
Incidents like these surely leave one feeling deeply disappointed in those young people involved, yet I am hopeful that the students involved in this will reflect and have significant discussion with their families as to how this type of act might play out in another scenario or another setting had it occurred in a different place or later in life. Both the Education Code and the California Penal Code speak to this issue as an act of fraud and I hope that in the conversations that families have with students who were involved they come to a realization that were similar acts to be carried out on a job somewhere in the future, not only would dismissal be probable, but that those acts could also become part of a permanent record that could impact their ability to find quality employment for years to come and have a host of other negative consequences.
We are saddened by the general outcome of this incident, but hopeful that the mistakes themselves in combination with the consequences incurred and discussions held, will push the young people involved into gains in perspective and values that may in fact help them make better decisions down the line when decision-making, for both themselves and the people that they care about, takes on even greater implications than it does now. We often use the phrase "teachable moment" in this business and I would like to see our community, namely our families and staff, use this incident as a springboard for discussions on ethics, integrity, and honesty. I see this as an opportunity to discuss those concepts in a rich and contextualized way and hope you will help initiate that discussion with all of our students.
On the brighter side...
In what could be seen as a pleasant irony and welcome counterpoise to the details above, our efforts around attendance appear to be paying off school-wide.
[Average daily attendance from September through March of this year increased by 1.55% as compared to the same period last year.]
Our collective focus on attendance is paying off -- more BHS students are going to class. That's a testament to many things, but primarily the incredible work of BHS' teachers, who engage students with dynamic, meaningful lessons and motivate them to keep coming back, day after day.
Behind the scenes, safety officers have been transforming the hallway culture, hurrying students on to class and requiring passes from students leaving class. Counselors, administrators, and the attendance team have been reaching out to students and their families, making personal contacts and connecting students with the support they need to be present on campus. By this point we've had dozens of individual meetings and group meetings with truant students and their families. Classified staff in the attendance office are doing a herculean job with the daily mountain of absence clearances and other attendance paperwork.
The word is beginning to get out that BHS is serious about attendance. We still have a long way to go, and our current attendance average is nothing to boast about, but it is a nice start. We hope to continue building on this success, and to expand our efforts, which this year have zeroed in on unexcused absences, to other attendance issues, namely tardiness, next year.
Thank you for helping to reinforce our expectations around attendance and for all of the efforts you put into the raising and educating of students as parents and staff respectively.
Berkeley High School