Numerous Brentwood students suspended over Internet breach

| Sunday, Jan. 15, 2012

A number of Brentwood High School students face one-day suspensions for using a free Internet program to access websites that had been blocked from school computers, according to a letter sent to parents.

The letter states the students' Internet, network and computer privileges will be suspended for the third nine weeks of the school year.

The school's computer policy prohibits disabling or blocking Internet filtering software without authorization.

"This is not a fair punishment," said Jennifer Colaizzi, whose son Jeremy Peters was among those suspended. She provided the Tribune-Review with copies of letters that she received from the school district.

Ronald W. Dufalla, the district's superintendent, and Robert Kircher, the district's school board president, did not return phone calls on Saturday.

"It is a policy of the district never to comment on student discipline issues," Brentwood Borough School Board Vice President David Schaap said.

Kelsey Mahoney, 17, a Brentwood High senior, said she was called to the vice principal's office on Wednesday and reprimanded for using a program called Ultrasurf. Later in the day, students were called to the school auditorium in groups of 20 and given their punishment -- a one-day, out-of-school suspension, 15 demerits and no access to school computers for the third nine weeks of classes, she said.

"I thought it was just a way to get my schoolwork done," she said. "I didn't know the severity or the consequences of using this."

At first, 83 students were given suspensions, Mahoney said. After additional searches were done on school computers, the number grew to more than 100, she said.

Mahoney's one-day suspension will be on Tuesday.

"I completely understand that we went against the technology code and we should be reprimanded. However, I don't think the punishment fits the crime," she said. "I was just trying to get my schoolwork done."

The district's notice to parents did not provide the number of suspensions but said because of the "sheer number of students who are involved," it was necessary to notify parents through the school district alert system "to reach all parties in a timely fashion."

Peters said the school's computers are blocked to such an extent that it's difficult to get schoolwork done. Websites such as YouTube and Facebook cannot be accessed, he said.

"They block everything. It's even hard to find things you need for classes," he said. Peters said he downloaded the Internet program so he could access Facebook.

According to the letter sent to Colaizzi, her son and the other suspended students downloaded the Ultrasurf program, which disables the filters put up by the school district. She received a separate letter from Assistant Principal Lindsay E. Klousnitzer notifying her of the suspension. Klousnitzer could not be reached yesterday.

Suspensions started on Friday and will be staggered, according to Peters, who will be suspended from school on Thursday. He will be prohibited from using school computers for nine weeks.

"I have more problem with that than I do with the suspensions. Don't students need computers to do work these days• What are they supposed to do?" Colaizzi asked.

In its e-mail, the district stated that it is obligated by the Child Internet Protection Act to maintain secure Internet access.

"We feel this infraction is very serious and placed your child at risk," the e-mail stated.

Wired magazine in 2010 said Ultrasurf is "one of the most important free-speech tools on the Internet." It was designed to thwart Chinese government Internet firewalls and has millions of users, the magazine said.

And in a 2007 study, Harvard University's Berkman Center for Internet & Society found Ultrasurf to be the "best-performing" of all tested circumvention tools.

Staff writer Stephanie Hacke contributed to this story.

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