Cary police search student’s home as part of Panther Creek High hacking case

Police searched the home of a Panther Creek High School student they think may have hacked into the school’s computer system last month to change the grades and class rank for eight seniors, according to a search warrant.

A teacher saw the 17-year-old Morrisville teen entering a classroom after-hours without permission on Oct. 22 a few days before another teacher discovered that grades had been altered, according to the warrant made public Friday. The warrant also says that some unauthorized grade changes were tracked to a computer at a library where the teen volunteers.

Cary Police Capt. Randall Rhyne said the investigation is ongoing and that police will meet with the Wake County District Attorney’s Office to determine what, if any, charges may be filed.

“We believe we are investigating the responsible party involved,” Rhyne said Monday.

The warrant includes the name of the teen, but The News & Observer is not naming him because he has not been charged with a crime.

The incident resulted in Panther Creek High pledging to send corrected transcripts to students and universities. Seniors submit their transcripts with their class ranking as part of the college application process.

Panther Creek staff also are without email access through Tuesday while software on all the school’s computers is removed and reinstalled.

The search warrant lays out a chronology of how the grade changes may have occurred.

On Oct. 1, an email from a Panther Creek High teacher containing malware that tracks a person’s keystrokes was sent to the school’s data manager. The warrant lists the teen’s computer skills.

Between Oct. 6 and Oct. 9, the warrant says, the data manager’s account was used without her permission multiple times to enter the PowerSchool database to change grades and to rerun the class ranking. Records for the Morrisville teen accounted for 45 of the 90 grade changes and resulted in his ranking rising from 67 to 7 in the senior class, according to the warrant.

The warrant shows that some of the changes were made from within the school. But one change was traced to an IP address at the Wake County West Regional Library, where the teen volunteers.

Oct. 13, Cary police were called in by the Wake County school system.

On Oct. 22, the warrant says that a Panther Creek teacher found the teen sitting in the dark after-school hours in another teacher’s room handling what he believed to be a laptop. The warrant says the teacher confirmed that the student, who gave different stories for why he was there, did not have permission to be in the room.

School surveillance video confirmed the student was in the school between 4:02 and 6:19 p.m. that day, according to the warrant.

The warrant says the teacher whose room the teen was seen entering later discovered that the student’s latest test grade had been changed in the PowerSchool system.

Multiple electronic devices, including a laptop computer, smartphone and flash drives, were seized during the Nov. 4 search of the student’s home.

Lisa Luten, a Wake County schools spokeswoman, said that it would violate the student’s privacy rights to say if he had been disciplined because his name is mentioned in the search warrant.

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui