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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In the aftermath of the cheating scheme involving students at Corona del Mar High School, 11 were expelled from the school and the private tutor accused of assisting them remains at-large.

As the clock ticked past five hours of closed-session deliberation, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustees re-emerged early Wednesday morning to announce their approval of the district administration's recommended punishments for each of the students.

"The Board of Education has weighed each of the cases presented this evening on an individual basis and in careful detail," Karen Yelsey, school board president, said. "As a [board], we are unanimous in our resolve to ensure the academic integrity of CdM and the district, as well as in delivering justice for the cases before us." 

CdM Principal Kathy Scott had suggested in early January that the district begin the expulsion process, said Laura Boss, district spokeswoman.

After that, district officials met with the students and their families to reach agreements about potential discipline. The administrators drafted stipulated expulsion agreements with the families and sent them to the board for approval.

Trustees approved stipulated expulsions for the students, which forbid them from returning to CdM, but allow them to transfer to another high school in the district.

The students' records will also be sealed for the time that they are in the public school system, sources said.

It is unclear if and how the students' grades will be altered by the district to compensate for the alleged cheating.

Expulsion Agreements

The stipulated expulsion agreements allow the district to bypass hearings where officials would be required to provide evidence of the students' cheating and allow them to respond. Under the agreements, the parents also agreed not to challenge the punishments in court.

Six of the 11 students involved have already left the district, Yelsey said.

While six of the recommendations were approved unanimously, board members Katrina Foley, Dana Black and Judy Franco were the only trustees to vote against any of the recommendations. Foley voted against four, Black against five and Franco against four.

"Every case had different facts and circumstances and different stipulated terms," Foley said in an interview. "I did not support some of the terms agreed to in some of the stipulated expulsion agreements."

It is unclear whether the students' college applications will be affected because the school district does not send disciplinary records to colleges unless they are requested.

If a college requests a certain record, the school district would provide it with parental permission, Boss said.

Parents and community members addressed the board before trustees made their decision.

Randy Zuckerman, a Los Angeles resident, spoke to the crowd on behalf of the families of three of the 11 students.

The three students Zuckerman spoke about did not participate in the changing of grades, he said, but were aware of the cheating.

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

Other parents, such as Yolanda Newton, stressed to trustees the importance of sending a message to students by refusing to allow them to transfer within the district.

"This isn't run-of-the-mill cheating," she said. "This was premeditated, sophisticated and ongoing."

Detailed Cheating Scheme

On Dec. 17, the district confirmed that roughly a dozen students attached a keylogger to several teachers' computers to swipe logins and passwords, allegedly with the help of a private tutor.

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

The next day, Newport Beach detectives searched the Irvine home and car of Timothy Lance Lai, 28, the tutor accused of providing the students with the keyloggers and instructing them on how to use the devices to access password-protected accounts.

Authorities seized four USB thumb drives, several electronic devices, a cell phone, a notepad bearing student names, a notebook containing multiple tests with a female student's name written on it, schoolwork, routers, an algebra quiz, a math problem packet, a pre-calculus test and a pre-algebra assignment, according to the property report.

While the cheating was confirmed by district officials in December, a search warrant and affidavit, obtained from the Orange County Superior Court, confirm that the situation began as early as April 2013.

The 16-page search warrant and affidavit by Det. David Syvock details how Newport Beach police and school officials began investigating the alleged cheating incident in June 2013.

On June 18, a science teacher notified CdM administrators that she suspected someone had accessed her computer and changed students' grades, according to the affidavit. Officials determined that the grades were altered from a remote computer four days earlier, the affidavit said.

During an internal review, Vladimir Anderson, the school's resource officer, and school administrators identified two female students whose grades they believed had been changed.

One of the two students allegedly told Anderson that her friend installed on the back of a teacher's computer a device that she later removed after attaining the information needed to remotely access the school's grading database.

About a week after the student's final exam, she checked her grade and saw that it was changed from a C to a B, the affidavit said.

When school officials caught on, the student allegedly responsible for placing the keylogging device instructed her friend to take the blame, according to the affidavit.

She also stated, according to the court papers, that her friend had told her she received a call from her tutor instructing the girls not to identify him.

When Anderson attempted to obtain the tutor's name from the female student, the girl's mother informed him that they had retained an attorney and declined to make a statement, the papers say.

The girls were suspended from CdM and the tutor was never identified. District officials decline to specify whether the girls were punished further, citing student confidentiality laws.

"Due to the lack of information to identify the tutor, the criminal investigation was closed," Syvok wrote in the affidavit.

Tutor Provides Missing Link

Just as the case began to go cold after six months of inactivity, information surfaced that shed more light on the scheme.

In December, an assistant principal contacted Anderson about an 11th-grade student.

The male student said that during the middle of his sophomore year, Lai asked him to place a keylogger on the computers of several CdM teachers, according to the affidavit.

The student initially declined to help, but as the year progressed, he was called upon again to place keyloggers on three science, Spanish and English teachers' computers, the court papers say.

He finally agreed to place the keylogger on a history teacher's computer, according to the court papers.

The student said that when he returned the device to Lai, he was given a copy of an upcoming history test, the affidavit asserts.

During the interview with Anderson, the student allegedly identified 11 other students who were involved in the apparent cheating, the court papers say.

While the affidavit outlines a dozen students involved in the cheating, in letters sent recently to school officials, parents are asking why the board is disciplining only 11 students, with the twelfth being allowed to return to school.

Boss declined to comment.

The student also described to Anderson an early morning in April 2013 when he and Lai allegedly broke into CdM to install a keylogging device, court papers state.

Conversations between the student and Lai included information about meetings for tutoring, pictures of high school tests and discussions about the cheating, according to the affidavit.

"It was clear from the content that Lai and [the student] were using text messaging to discuss strategies on how to continue this elaborate scheme," Syvok wrote.

Lai is wanted by police for questioning but has not been located, said Jennifer Manzella, spokeswoman for the Newport Beach Police Department.

While Lai has eight traffic violations for infractions like driving without a valid license, failing to obey traffic signs and driving while using a cell phone, he has never been charged with a serious crime, according to Orange County Superior Court records.

In parents' letters to district officials, they allege that Lai was tutoring more than 150 CdM teens.

Lai had become known for his ability to help students boost their GPAs, parents said.

The last known phone number for Lai has been disconnected.

History of Cheating

CdM has encountered its share of cheating scandals in the past decade.

In 2004, two students were arrested after hacking into the high school's computers to boost grades. The students collected money, sometimes as much as several hundred dollars, from their peers to raise grades, officials said at the time.

Cheating surfaced again at the school in 2010 when sophomores were caught purchasing test banks from Amazon.

Students were not punished because the banks, which provide test questions and answers for teachers, were not labeled as teacher's editions, were found in the public domain and were available from legitimate retailers, the principal said at the time.

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.