Newport-Mesa Unified District trustees voted to expel 11 students accused of participating in a detailed cheating scheme at Corona del Mar High School. (KEVIN CHANG, Daily Pilot / January 29, 2014)

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While academic dishonesty has been a common occurrence in some form for decades, students have started integrating technology, like keyloggers, to carry out cheating ploys, said Walter Haney, a professor emeritus at Boston College.

When an issue of academic dishonesty arises, school officials and the students accused of cheating are often interested in finding some way to settle the matter before it becomes public, he said.

"It's embarrassing for both the student accused of cheating and the school involved," he said. "There's a common interest in sweeping this stuff under the rug without it becoming public. It's more widespread than is typically acknowledged."

A 'Culture of Cheating'

The parents of an expelled CdM student warned district officials of a widespread "culture of cheating" at the school, which US News ranked 46 out of 2,039 public high schools in the state.

"You cannot simply throw a handful of students to the wolves," she wrote in a letter to the district. "There are plenty more kids walking around your campus who are as guilty, if not more so, then any of the kids wrapped up in this scandal."

The parent suggested that the school's "smartest students" 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 that you have marginalized," the letter states.

While cheating is a widespread issue, studies show the practice is more common in upscale areas, Haney said.

"It tends to be students from more affluent communities that bend the rules for their advantage," he said.

Some parents in the community have pointed to the intense pressure placed on students to receive good grades and get into a reputable college.

Of the 398 students who graduated from CdM last year, 99% attended college in the fall, the majority of them at our-year universities, according to the school's published profile.

However, Isabel Jorgensen, 16, a junior at Newport Harbor High School, said the pressure on students isn't reason enough to cheat.

"There's always a pressure to cheat in a difficult class because it would be easier, but have I ever done it? No," she said. "Students at CdM say they have more pressure than the kids at Harbor, but they don't."

At a recent weekend party, three students accused of participating in the scheme spoke about attending Newport Harbor High next semester, Isabel said, but that notion makes her uncomfortable.

"I don't want to go to an interview with admissions at Stanford and have to explain that I graduated from the school that took in these students," she said.

District's Next Steps

The district is continuing to audit 52,000 student grades to determine how many may have been altered in the keylogging scheme this year, Boss said.

Officials are also implementing a new notification system district-wide that would flag grade changes made to teachers' records.

"While the current student discipline matters have concluded, the lingering effects of the hacking incident at Corona del Mar continue as part of an ongoing investigation," Boss wrote in a news release.

In response to the scandal, Trustee Foley announced that she will be proposing a new graduation requirement for all high school students to be discussed by the board at its next meeting. The requirement would include a minimum of a four-hour class on ethics, she said.

"As we embark into the new way of teaching that is reliant on computers and technology almost exclusively, I think we owe it to our students and the next generation to help them understand the ethics and consequences of their actions," she said.