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Administrator quits, says O.C. district fumbled cheating scandal

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Deepening the intrigue in a cheating scandal that has shaken one of the state's top schools, an administrator for a coastal Orange County school district resigned Wednesday after excoriating officials for their handling of the case.

Eleven students were expelled last week from high-achieving Corona del Mar High School amid allegations that they were involved in a scheme to hack into the district's computer system to change grades and access exams.

Jane Garland, the administrator who was deeply involved in the case for months as Newport-Mesa Unified School District's head of discipline, said the district badly fumbled the investigation and ignored her recommendations to give the students a lighter punishment or heed warnings that the problem might be more far-reaching.

"They didn't stop to think about it," Garland said in an interview. "They went ahead, and these children got destroyed in the newspapers."

In an email to school board members and administrators, Garland called the handling of the case "a total farce" and said the way in which students were selected for punishment seemed arbitrary.

Officials say that the cheating scheme was instigated by a tutor, Timothy Lance Lai, 28, who allegedly told students to attach a "keylogger" to teachers' computers, which recorded keystrokes and revealed passwords.

Newport Beach detectives served a search warrant at Lai's home in neighboring Irvine and seized thumb drives, hard drives and other evidence that may broaden the scope of the cheating scandal. Lai, however, cannot be found.

"If you have a young girl who gets on the Internet and meets an older man, he's a predator, right?" Garland said Wednesday. "We had a predator here.… He had these children scared to death."

After reviewing the evidence, Garland said she learned that culpability among the students varied, and some of them had knowledge of the cheating scheme but did not participate in the hacking.

"Of these 11 kids, seven of them we don't have anything on — not even their own admission — to what they did," she said.

Garland, who has worked for the district for 13 years in various jobs, is a champion of "restorative" punishment and advocated keeping the students in the high school with discipline that might involve tutoring other students and taking classes on the consequences of their decisions.

When Corona del Mar officials interviewed students about the case, she said, the students were given the impression that their punishment would be lighter if they implicated others.

"The kids feel like, 'I gave up my friends,' " she said. "You don't do that to children."

In her internal email, obtained by the Daily Pilot, Garland wrote that the district has no evidence of exactly how many of the expelled students hacked into computers or how many merely knew about it, "and yet all are receiving the same punishments." She said it appeared that one student whose father is well-connected in the school appears to have been given special treatment and was removed from the expulsion list.

Garland wrote that 150 students "have some involvement in this situation," according to student interviews, but that "I believe the system is willing to allow these 11 students to take the fall and close the book on this matter."

In the interview, Garland asked what might happen to those 150 students if further information links them to the scandal. "Are we going to throw everybody out of school?" she said.

School district President Karen Yelsey responded to Garland's remarks Wednesday by saying, "I don't give any credence to her claims."

Yelsey said the district is reviewing 52,000 student grades to ensure that they were not altered in the hacking. She said the district stood by its decision to expel the 11 students and had done so only "after much discussion."

Despite charges from Garland that Corona del Mar High School Principal Kathy Scott knew the tutor's name as early as September and failed to warn parents, Yelsey said the principal did not become aware of concrete evidence implicating Lai until December.

Before that, Yelsey said, "she was told there was a tutor out there, but it was total rumor," adding: "You can't make decisions based on rumors."

Yelsey said she attended a PTA meeting at Corona del Mar High School on Wednesday, and parents told her they want to put the case behind them.

"Parents are tired of this story," she said. "It's done and over."

christopher.goffard@latimes.com

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