After hours of deliberation, the Orange County Department of Education's board decided Wednesday that it needed more time to determine whether it has the authority to hear the appeals of five Corona del Mar High School students who were expelled for their involvement in the school's cheating scandal.
The board voted to continue reviewing, with the help of outside legal counsel, the stipulated expulsion agreements signed by the students' families in place of an expulsion hearing.
Eleven CdM juniors and seniors were expelled during a January Newport-Mesa Unified School District board meeting for allegedly taking part in the scheme. Students' involvement ranged from knowing cheating was happening and not reporting it to attaching key logging devices to teachers' computers to swipe logins and passwords, district officials have said.
Irvine tutor Timothy Lance Lai allegedly masterminded the plot that allowed the students to change grades and access exams, some at the honors and Advanced Placement levels, according to officials. Police have tried unsuccessfully to locate him since the case went public in December.
This is the first time the county education board has been asked to review stipulated expulsion agreements, said Rick Riegel, student services coordinator for the Department of Education.
The agreements between Newport-Mesa Unified and the students allows the students to bypass a traditional expulsion hearing and grants them certain terms that they may not receive in a hearing, such as being able to attend Newport Harbor High School.
The county education board is required to hear appeals by expelled students, according to the education code, but there is some question as to whether stipulated expulsion agreements fall into the same category.
Former Newport-Mesa administrator Jane Garland, Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer and attorneys representing the five students' families cited the education code and legal precedent that they say mandate the board hear the appeals.
"The law is unambiguous on its face," said Meldie Morre, a Laguna Beach-based education and expulsion attorney. "It demands an appeal after an expulsion."
However, Steven Montanez, Newport-Mesa Unified's attorney, said that because there was no expulsion hearing, the county board doesn't have the authority to hear the appeal.
"You would open the floodgates of expulsion hearings if you hear this," he told the board.
Board member Elizabeth Parker recused herself at the start of the discussions, saying that she had been contacted by too many "involved parties" and worried that she would have difficulty staying unbiased.
The appeals are one of the last stops for parents of the expelled students who believe their children were treated unfairly.
Six of the 11 students had already left Newport-Mesa Unified by the time the Newport-Mesa Unified board made its decision. By signing the agreements, the rest of the students were able to transfer to Harbor, but are not allowed to participate in extracurricular activities or events like sports or prom.
The agreements also sealed the students' records and allow them to return to CdM in June. But the families waived their rights to an appeal, according to the district.
Morre and Spitzer assert that the agreements should not be upheld because the district was not honest about evidence.
Morre said district officials had told some of the students during the investigation that other students had implicated them when they hadn't.
In addition to the attorneys who spoke about grounds for accepting the appeal, Spitzer spoke on behalf of the families in his capacity as an attorney and victim's rights advocate.
He said he decided to come forward to encourage the board to act independently of Newport-Mesa Unified because he felt the cases needed a neutral agency to make the final determination.
"There's no code section that says stipulated expulsions deny rights to an appeals hearing," said Spitzer. "The students entered into an agreement that was coerced and fraudulent."
Several of the families and Garland allege that the district didn't have enough evidence to expel some of the students.
Garland, who helped draft the expulsion agreements, asserts that each of the 11 students had varying levels of involvement in the scandal. In some cases, the extent of the students' participation was previewing test questions during tutoring sessions.
After the board's decision in January, Garland sent an email to top district administrators and parents of the expelled students in which she called the situation and investigation a "total farce." She resigned from the district several days later.
At that point, three of the families sought the advice of Moore, who decided to file an appeal with the Department of Education.
The department's education board said that because some concerns were raised during the meeting that its attorney hadn't addressed, it was not able to come to a decision. The members have not yet determined when they will make a decision.
One of the county board's primary functions is to have the final say into whether or not a school district handled a situation correctly.
"These situations have the potential to be rife with political undertones," Spitzer said. "That's not how our education system is supposed to work."