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Cheating scandal: Newport-Mesa official resigns to protest expulsions

An administrator for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District resigned Wednesday after alleging the school district badly mishandled a computer-hacking scandal that resulted in the expulsion of 11 students.

Jane Garland, who was deeply involved in the case for months as the district’s head of discipline, said the district ignored her recommendations to give the students a lighter punishment.

“They didn’t stop to think about it,” Garland said. “They went ahead, and these children got destroyed in the newspapers.”

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

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

Officials say the scheme was instigated by a tutor, 28-year-old Timothy Lance Lai, 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 on East Yale Loop in Irvine and seized thumbdrives, hard drives and other evidence that may broaden the scope of the cheating scandal. Lai himself, 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. “We had a predator here. … He had these children scared to death.”

After reviewing the evidence, Garland said, she learned 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, said she is a champion of “restorative” punishment, and advocated to keep the students in the high school with discipline that might involve tutoring other kids 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 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.”

She said Corona del Mar High School Principal Kathy Scott learned Lai’s name in September but failed to promptly warn parents about him.

Parents say Lai may have worked with as many as 150 students, and officials are auditing 52,000 student grades to see how many might have been changed.

Scott has repeatedly declined comment on the cheating scandal.

“… I believe the system is willing to allow these 11 students to take the fall and close the book on this matter,” she wrote in her email, a copy of which was obtained by the Daily Pilot.

“Whatever is going to happen to the other 150 kids?” Garland said in an interview with The Times on Wednesday. “Are we going to throw everybody out of school?”

Officials at Corona del Mar High referred calls to the district spokesperson, who could not be reached for comment.

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 christopher.goffard@latimes.com

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