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Potomac 20854: A made for TV drama unfolds in the DC suburb

At Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, 40 to 50 students were involved in a computer hacking scheme to change grades.
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Winston Churchill High School in Potomac, Maryland, was made famous by alum Darren Star (award winning producer, screenwriter) who created the television series Beverly Hills 90210 based on his Churchill High School experiences. Today, it's getting an extra share of media attention following the eruption of a scandal of Hollywood proportions.

The story of "computer grade hacking" broke Wednesday night by way of a pre-recorded phone message sent by the administration to the homes of the 2,100 students who attend the school.

That's actually how I heard about it - I am the parent of two Churchill High School students.

40 to 50 students were involved in the scheme to change grades. A small ring of students had allegedly obtained secret passwords for the grading system and were either selling the passwords (so students could change their grades on their own) or being paid to change student grades.

Some teachers in Montgomery County didn't hear about the grading scandal until two days later, on Friday morning, when they were told to change their passwords immediately.

"I put my grades in and then I immediately print out what I've input," said one Montgomery County teacher who wished to remain anonymous. "But I don't think a lot of teachers do this."

As with many public schools in the area and around the country, Churchill's grade tallying and reporting is done mostly, if not completely, on the computer. Teachers who are strapped with six classes of 25 to 30 students per class (that's 200 to 300 students a day) cut down on their workload in part by offering multiple-choice tests that are graded by a computer and also by reusing tests year after year. For this reason students are infrequently given back hard copies of their assignments or tests (to prevent cheating the following year) to show their parents or guardians. This system, while good for the teachers is not good for the students. It means, first, that students cannot actually learn from their mistakes because they don't know where they made those mistakes and, second, that parents have little or no idea how their kids are actually faring at school. Ed-line, an on-line grading warehouse that reports grades only, becomes their hollow yardstick.

Even before this scandal broke out I, along with many other parents, had major problems with this appalling system.

Somewhere in the ethernet between where teachers file their grades and where those grades appear on Ed-line, the students who hacked into the grading system made their changes.

"Without paper-proof of grades, how do we know whose grades were changed?" asks one parent of two Churchill students. According to the Washington Post sources say that finding the original grades may be difficult "because teachers at the school no longer keep separate log books of their grades."

After hearing the recorded message reporting the abuse of the grading records, questions about the incident could be heard from DC office buildings to grocery stores in the suburbs. "What if these kids lowered the grades of students they didn't like out of spite?" asked the parent of a senior and a freshman. "How do we know? How will we know?"

Even the television series Beverly Hills 90210 (originally entitled Potomac 20854, according to rumors around town) didn't use a computer hacking theme in the 1990s version or in the 2008 spin-off that follows a new group of high school students. Perhaps that's because a grade changing scandal didn't seem sexy enough. Or perhaps it's just that it was too fantastical.

In this D.C. suburb, home to many famous inside-the-beltway types including former CIA chief George Tenet and political activist and actress Lynda Carter (Wonder Woman), an area jaded by constant adult-variety political scandals, residents are shocked by this child-centric scandal and it has thousands in Potomac and the surrounding towns very worried.

"If this can happen at Churchill High School it could happen or might already be happening at any of the other schools in the area," said the mother of two Churchill High School students.

The problems for students, parents and teachers in Montgomery County and at Churchill High School in particular, which brags a 98-percent graduation rate and SAT scores that are the second highest in the country, are far reaching and the questions are limitless. How many students are involved? How many students were affected? How long has this grade-fixing been going on? When will the entire story emerge and how bad will it turn out to be? And, ultimately, how will this problem be fixed?

"What if a child didn't ask to have their grades changed but the students who did this decided to do them a favor?" asked one parent. "Will that child be implicated? How do we know who to believe. How do we know which students knowingly let their grades be changed and which didn't know about it? How do we know anything? There's no paper trail."

According to sources, this scandal was discovered when one of the involved students changed his class grade from a C to an A. Somehow the teacher noticed the discrepancy, perhaps thinking he'd input the grade incorrectly, and changed the grade back to a C. The student then allegedly changed the C back to an A and the teacher reported to school officials what he may have thought was a glitch in the system.

All this happened earlier this week, but according to a number of parents many of their children have known about the grade hacking for some time now. Some could even name the hackers before their names became public knowledge.

Some students told their parents they were asked if they wanted their grades changed and today they are, to say the least, relieved that they said 'no.' Were these children parented better than the hackers and those who went with them to the dark side? Fair or not, there's no denying that many of us are asking that exact question.

Other parents say their children were completely shocked by the news saying they had no idea this was going on in their school.

In a world rocked by constant, highly-publicized adult scandals, whether it's Jack Abramoff, Bernie Madoff, John Edwards or even Tiger Woods, what could these children have been thinking? Have they not seen that lying leads to a nasty and very messy dead-end? Did they really think they would get away with the grade changes, graduate from Ivy League colleges and go on to lead pristine lives of great success and greater wealth? Or did they not care if they got caught thinking only about the immediate results, satisfied to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasted?

Could a boring suburban existence have inspired them to risk everything their parents had neatly and generously provided? Or was it, in fact, the high-pressure environment of an elite school system that pushed them over the edge?

Is this ultimately going to become the convenient excuse for these students and then the catalyst that will require the entire educational system to be reassessed?

"If they feel like they have to resort to this," concluded one parent, "then there's something wrong with our school system."

"I wish I knew why they did this, was it to be funny or was it really because they felt so much pressure to get into college?" asks one Montgomery County teacher. "It's very sad if the kids feel this much pressure that they need to go about things this way."

Is there a lesson here? Or, will some great defense lawyer sweep in and declare temporary insanity caused by an overwhelming pressure to succeed?

Surely this story will continue to unfold and like so many scandals of our time, will one-day turn into a made for television movie.