A high school secretary has been charged with illegally changing grades in a school computer system to improve her daughter's class standing and with lowering the grades of two other girls.
State Attorney General Tom Corbett announced yesterday that agents from his office filed criminal charges against Caroline McNeal, 39, of Huntingdon, who previously worked as a high school secretary at Huntingdon Area High School in southcentral Pennsylvania. The school has about 800 students. The case was referred to his office by the Huntingdon County district attorney.
The former high school secretary was charged with 29 counts of unlawful use of a computer and 29 counts of tampering with public records, all third-degree felonies.
Mr. Corbett said, "Tampering with official records for personal or family gain is a serious violation of the public trust. Our citizens depend on people in public positions, including school employees, to protect the safety and security of these records and not use confidential information for their own benefit."
The first clue that something was amiss came when a high school guidance office employee in fall 2007 noticed that the SAT college entrance exam score in the school computer for Ms. McNeal's daughter was higher than the one sent by the College Board, 1730 vs. 1370.
Further investigation showed the girl's grades had been altered about 193 times in 24 courses between May 30, 2006 and July 12, 2007, covering school years from 2003-04 through 2006-07.
Many of the changes boosted grades that were already in the 90s, such as changing an accelerated social studies term grade from 94 to 95 and a family and consumer sciences final grade from 98 to 100.
In some cases, the increase was significant, such as raising an exam grade in advanced algebra from 69 to 94.
Officials also determined that the grades of two other girls had been reduced. The girls had higher class ranks than Ms. McNeal's daughter did before the grades were altered.
According to the affidavit, the grades of the two girls were changed by a couple of percentage points, such as reducing one's advanced algebra grade for one term from 96 to 94 and the other's accelerated English grade for a term from 96 to 93.
Mr. Corbett said the school district corrected any unauthorized changes before the affected students graduated.
Nils Frederiksen, a spokesman for the attorney general, said no other arrests are anticipated and that there is no evidence to believe that the secretary's daughter or husband had any knowledge grades were being altered.
He also said there was no evidence that the grade changes helped or hindered college admission for the girls.
Such cases are infrequent but not unheard of, said Dick Flanary, senior director for leadership programs and services at the National Association of Secondary School Principals.
"I think most schools and leaders and districts at least work to ensure the sanctity and legitimacy of grades so that doesn't happen. But ultimately, if someone wants to alter that, particularly in a school setting, they're going to find a way to do that," he said.
Grade software programs boast of high levels of security to protect against tampering, but ultimately, the systems depend on the trust of authorized users.
The system used in Huntingdon Area tracked what changes were made, when and by whom.
In the Huntingdon Area case, employees shared their user names and passwords on the district's software.
The changes in question were made under four different names -- including the defendant's. Except for five cases, the changes were made from the computer terminal assigned to Ms. McNeal, according to the affidavit. Several secretaries and guidance counselors said they had given Ms. McNeal their passwords while on vacation or leave.
Ms. McNeal has been arraigned and was released on her own recognizance pending a preliminary hearing.
Jonathan Silver contributed to this report. Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1955.