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Corona del Mar High students expelled in cheating scandal

School officials and police say a tutor masterminded a scheme to steal teachers' passwords, change grades and access exams.

January 29, 2014|By Hannah Fry and Joe Mozingo
  • Corona del Mar High School's sterling record has been shaken by an ugly cheating scandal.
Corona del Mar High School's sterling record has been shaken by an… (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles…)

Over the years, Corona del Mar High School has earned a reputation as one of the state's top public schools. Living in a seaside enclave of quaint old homes and cliff-top mansions, the school's students benefit from private tutors and their parents expect them to go on to elite universities.

But in recent weeks the school's sterling record has been shaken by an ugly cheating scandal. And, on Wednesday, 11 students were expelled.

School officials say that a tutor who worked with some of the students masterminded a scheme in which students obtained the passwords and log-on information of teachers and hacked into the district computer system to change grades and access exams.

Early Wednesday, after lengthy closed-door meetings, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustees announced their decision to take a hard line and adopt the most severe penalty under consideration.

"As a Board of Education, we are unanimous in our resolve to ensure the academic integrity ... as well as in delivering justice for the cases before us," said board President Karen Yelsey.

The students will be able to attend other high schools in the district, but the expulsions could be divulged to colleges if admissions officers asked why they changed schools.

Newport Beach police officers have been helping the district investigate the cheating since June, when a teacher notified administrators of the possibility that someone accessed her computer and altered grades, according to an affidavit.

By December, they had identified 12 students suspected of involvement in the alleged scheme and the private tutor, Timothy Lance Lai, 28. Officers searched his home the next day, but he had left and they have been unable to find him since.

Authorities said Lai instructed the students to attach a keylogger — an inconspicuous device that can monitor keystrokes — to various teachers' computers.

With the recorded information, the students changed grades and accessed English, science and history exams, some at the honors and Advanced Placement levels, authorities said.

While the students and Lai could face criminal charges, none have been filed. The search warrant indicated police were investigating possible felony counts.

Corona del Mar sophomore Skyler Gullick addressed the board meeting, saying the trustees made the right decision.

"It's a really serious crime," she said. "I don't think they knew how serious it was."

Before the vote, many parents and students addressed the board. Emotion ran high. Some parents feared colleges might view all students coming from the school as cheaters.

"I'm concerned about my daughter's college applications and how those schools are going to be looking at those," said Michele Caston, the mother of a senior not implicated in the scandal.

Randy Zuckerman, who said he is a friend of several of the parents whose children were expelled, spoke to the crowd on behalf of the families of three of the 11 students. He said they did not participate in the cheating but knew about it and did not report it.

"Knowing cheating is taking place is not reason enough to be expelled," he said later. "These kids are humiliated. They can't unring this bell."

Others said that the board's decision needed to be a strong deterrent to future cheaters.

"This isn't run-of-the-mill cheating," said Yolanda Newton, a Newport Harbor High parent. "This was premeditated, sophisticated and ongoing."

She asked the board to expel the students and refuse to let them attend neighboring schools.

According to the affidavit, the case started when a teacher notified administrators that someone might have accessed her computer and altered grades. Police interviewed a girl who said that she and her friend changed their grades in environmental science at the behest her friend's tutor. When officers tried to interview the friend to learn the tutor's name, her mother intervened and said she had retained an attorney and would not be speaking. The case was closed.

But when more altered grades were discovered, officers met with an 11th-grade boy Dec. 17, who cooperated. He said that his tutor had asked him to place the keylogger device on several teachers' computers. He said he declined at first, but eventually relented and attached one to an AP world history teacher's desktop, according to the affidavit. He identified the tutor as Lai. Later he said he and Lai picked the lock of another teacher's classroom in the early morning.

Administrators announced the scandal that day, and police searched Lai's home the next day.

The district is now in the process of auditing 52,000 student grades to see if others might have been altered by students this year. The tutor, parents told the district, worked with as many as 150 students.

About 2,200 students go to the school, and 99% go on to college.

One student's mother wrote a letter to Principal Kathy Scott earlier this month complaining that her son wasn't being treated fairly after he cooperated with authorities.

The woman didn't identify herself or her son in the email, but her son appears to be the junior who met with police on Dec. 17 and identified the tutor, based on facts coinciding in her letter and the police affidavit.

She complained that he never altered his grades and that there was a wider "culture of cheating" at the high school being overlooked.

"I would suggest you look at some your smartest students who are doing 'tutoring' for other CdM students," she wrote. "It is these 'smartest students' who are getting paid to do assignments, write papers and take online tests for other students. CdM's atmosphere of cheating goes far beyond the students you have marginalized.'

hannah.fry@latimes.com

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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