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High school cheating scandal: Hard line taken against students

Although no charges have been filed against the students and a tutor involved in the Corona del Mar High School cheating scandal, a search warrant indicates police were looking at possible felony counts.

On Wednesday, 11 students were expelled. School officials say a tutor who worked with some of the students masterminded a scheme in which students obtained the passwords and log-on information of teachers and hacked into the district computer system to change grades and access exams.

Early Wednesday, after lengthy closed-door meetings, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District trustees announced their decision to take a hard line and adopt the most severe penalty under consideration.

“As a Board of Education, we are unanimous in our resolve to ensure the academic integrity ... as well as in delivering justice for the cases before us,” said board President Karen Yelsey.

The students will be able to attend other high schools in the district, but the expulsions could be divulged to colleges if admissions officers ask why they changed schools.

Newport Beach police officers have been helping the district investigate the cheating since June, when a teacher notified administrators of the possibility that someone accessed her computer and altered grades, according to an affidavit.

By December, they had identified 12 students suspected of involvement in the alleged scheme and the private tutor, Timothy Lance Lai, 28. Officers searched his home the next day, but he had left and they have been unable to find him since.

Authorities said Lai instructed the students to attach a keylogger — an inconspicuous device that can monitor keystrokes — to various teachers' computers.

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

While the students and Lai could face criminal charges, none have been filed. The search warrant indicated police were investigating possible felony counts.

Corona del Mar sophomore Skyler Gullick addressed the board during meeting, saying the trustees made the right decision.

“It's a really serious crime,” she said. “I don't think they knew how serious it was.”

The district is now in the process of auditing 52,000 student grades to see if others might have been altered by students this year. The tutor, parents told the district, worked with as many as 150 students.

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hannah.fry@latimes.com

joe.mozingo@latimes.com

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