Miami Herald | David Ovalle & Colleen Wright | March 12, 2021
The teen who launched a series of cyberattacks that hampered the Miami-Dade County schools’ online learning platform last fall will avoid jail time under a plea deal finalized on Friday.
The 17-year-old former South Miami Senior High student was not charged as an adult. A judge sentenced him to one year of probation and 30 hours of community service.
“All of this was a mistake,” the teen told Circuit Judge Yery Marrero. “I didn’t mean to cause harm.”
Miami-Dade Schools Police said the student, then 16, orchestrated no fewer than eight of at least two dozen cyberattacks that helped paralyze the first three days of the district’s virtual classes in the fall. The Miami Herald is not naming the student because of his age.
The attacks also exposed glaring vulnerabilities in the cybersecurity of the nation’s fourth largest school district. He used an easy-to-download software designed to overwhelm a system with what’s known as a “distributed denial of service attack,” or DDoS attack, which basically uses a slew of random computers to overwhelm a website with packets of data.
Cyberattacks were blamed in part for the failed first day of school of the 2020-21 school year. A software glitch also stalled the district on the first day of school, but issues with K12’s online learning platform persisted.
Cyberattacks still happened after the teen’s September arrest, as did issues with the now-gone K12 platform, the universal online learning platform that was ultimately scrapped by the Miami-Dade County School Board one week later. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho, at a press conference announcing the teen’s arrest, also said IP addresses involved in the attacks were traced to countries such as Russia and China, months before the 2020 presidential election.
Following the teen’s arrest, Carvalho also announced an overhaul of the district’s cybersecurity infrastructure. That included hiring past district information technology employees on a contractual basis and allocating $5 million in emergency federal stimulus money to support Information Technology Services enhancements.
During Friday’s court hearing, defense attorney Rick Yabor criticized Carvalho, saying he used the teen as a “personal scapegoat.”
“My client admits he sent a DDoS attack, however, we don’t agree with the fact that he was the cause of the failure of the K12 system,” Yabor said.
Still, Judge Marrero gently admonished the boy, saying he “consciously attacked that system.”
“You did accept responsibility,” Marrero said. “It’s really astonishing to me that a student sitting at home can go into a program and attack a system, whether it’s for five minutes , 10 minutes [or] three days, and that it could stall so many students.”
Marrero ordered the boy to attend AMI Kids, a program for at-risk students, and counseling. He’ll also have to write a letter of apology to students, teachers and the School Board. The judge granted him a “withhold of adjudication,” which means the conviction will not show on his record.
“I would hope, young man, that you use your computer smarts into doing something good in the future,” Marrero said, adding: “Maybe you’ll be programming amazing computers that will help the Miami-Dade school system.”