The e-mail, sent from an anonymous Google mail address that has since been shut down, contained a spreadsheet listing the GPAs and class rankings of 1,668 students.
The e-mail, signed "HH Grading Administration," said: "This document has been compiled with the help of some esteemed staff members." As soon as school officials learned about the message, they sent an e-mail of their own, stating in capital letters that they had nothing to do with it. Then they turned to police.
John Nodecker, the district's assistant superintendent for secondary education, compared the theft of GPAs to identity theft. "Taking data is a problem," he said. "The legality of it is pretty serious. Even if it is just a GPA, it's someone's data."
At first, the district assumed the school computer system had been compromised. After forensics experts from the FBI ran tests, and Google and Comcast provided data, investigators were convinced the perpetrator did not hack the system. Instead, Nodecker said, he or she probably took the information, either in hard copy or computerized form, from someone who was legitimately entitled to it.
He believes the person behind the e-mail was a student, and he said he felt confident investigators' efforts would uncover who it was. Because seniors graduate Monday, the culprit might be out of the school's disciplinary reach by the time police unravel the mystery. But, Nodecker said, "We certainly will enthusiastically prosecute or at least ask the courts to prosecute. I wouldn't want to be that individual."
In the meantime, some students are buzzing about the leaked information.
At Casey Swezey's lunch table, several students turned to their smartphones on the day the e-mail was sent. "It kind of blew up right in lunch," Swezey said.
Her friends passed a phone around the table, and they all looked up their own names in the spreadsheet. They were all listed. All of a sudden, all of her friends — and many students throughout the school — knew that Swezey was tied for fifth in the freshman class of 416 students.
"I knew I was one of the top," Swezey said. "I prefer to keep that to myself, not to have people coming up to me saying, ‘Congratulations.'?"
Nodecker said he heard many more of the top students expressing consternation that their GPAs were now public knowledge than struggling students complaining that their low marks were on display.
"It was embarrassing for the whole school," said Liz Purtell, a junior. She did not receive the e-mail, but her GPA was listed in it, and she asked a friend to forward it to her. She looked through the spreadsheet until her parents told her to delete it from her phone.
Swezey said the leak led her friends to bet they could beat one another's grades next year. The boasts were meant in fun, she said, but she felt sure the students were not entirely joking about the competitive spirit the e-mail fueled.
"People realized where they were, and I think it definitely did make them more competitive," she said. "It made people see that they need to work harder to do better than some of my friends."
Even before the e-mail, Nodecker said, school leaders had been debating for years whether to do away with class rankings. Some worry the numerical evaluation — even if, as intended, it is never seen by anyone other than the student and college admissions officers — prods students to take tough classes and work long hours just to boost their GPAs.
"We want our students to do very well," Nodecker said. "We also want them to do well for the right reasons."
Contact Julie Zauzmer at 215-854-2771 or email@example.com.