Los Angeles Times

District official says cheating scandal mishandled

In an internal email that quickly went public, a top Newport-Mesa Unified School District official accused school and district administrators of mishandling the cheating scandal at Corona del Mar High.

Jane Garland, who is in charge of discipline for the district, called the situation and investigation a "total farce" in an email dated Jan. 24.

"NMUSD should be ashamed of the staff mishandling of this entire situation," she wrote in the missive, which the Daily Pilot acquired Wednesday.

Citing student confidentiality, district spokeswoman Laura Boss declined to comment on Garland's allegations.

Eleven CdM students were expelled from the high school last month for allegedly attaching keylogging devices to several teachers' computers to swipe logins and passwords, apparently with the help of a private tutor, according to the district.

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

Parents and Garland assert 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.

Other students admitted to breaking into the school to place the keyloggers on computers or even driving other students to the school to assist with the break-ins, sources say.

However, Garland argued in her email to the school board that the evidence against many of the children was thin.

"Other than the students who implicated themselves — the district has no evidence who keylogged, who broke into the school, who had only knowledge," Garland wrote. "And yet all are receiving the same punishments."

CdM Principal Kathy Scott suggested in early January that the district begin the expulsion process.

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

"I tried to get each family the best that I could or they would have had to go before a three-administrator panel, and I was quite sure they would then be expelled out of the district," Garland wrote Tuesday in an email to the Daily Pilot.

On Jan. 29, school district trustees approved the stipulated expulsion agreements, which forbid the 11 students from returning to CdM but allow them to transfer to another high school in the district.

Six of the 11 students had already left the district by the time the school board approved the agreements.

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

When news of the scandal broke in December, district officials said a dozen students were involved in the grade-changing scheme. However, only 11 were expelled.

In the email, Garland questions why the 12th student was allowed to return to CdM without punishment, suggesting that one of the student's parents was influential on campus.

The district's reasoning is that officials didn't have enough evidence to expel the student, she wrote in the email, suggesting that she didn't buy the argument.

Parents, in letters to district officials, allege that the cheating extends much further than the dozen accused. Timothy Lance Lai of Irvine was allegedly tutoring more than 150 CdM teens, and according to Garland's email, each of them had some involvement in the scheme.

"In a concerted effort to provide a community with revenge and a false sense of innocence for those involved but not accused, NMUSD has been willing to vilify a handful of kids that may or may not be culpable," she wrote.

Lai is wanted by Newport Beach police for questioning but has not been located.

Garland, in her letter to the board, also takes issue with school district statements regarding when officials learned the students might have been helped by the tutor. She directly criticizes Principal Scott for failing to investigate Lai when she supposedly learned of his involvement and identity from a parent in September 2013.

When the Daily Pilot called Scott, a CdM receptionist referred all inquiries to Boss.

However, the district has argued, according to an article in the Orange County Register, that the information provided in September "was only rumor" and therefore not forwarded to police.

A search warrant and affidavit on file with the Orange County Superior Court states that the cheating extends as far back as April, though the scandal wasn't made public until Dec. 17.

Administrators became aware of the issue June 18, when a science teacher at CdM notified officials that someone had accessed her computer and changed students' grades, according to the affidavit.

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 had installed a device on the back of a teacher's computer that was later removed after the information needed to remotely access the school's grading database was attained.

The girls were suspended from CdM and one transferred to Newport Harbor High School, Garland wrote. The district halted the investigation because of a lack of evidence, the affidavit states.

The district promoted Garland in August to implement restorative justice in Newport-Mesa schools.

Restorative justice emphasizes working with students to change bad behavior so they don't violate rules again. The approach stresses keeping students in school over expulsion and suspension.

Restorative justice, which was implemented fully into Newport-Mesa schools in the fall, focuses on helping students develop empathy, understand the reasons for their actions and take responsibility for wrongdoing, according to district officials.

Garland confirmed in January that restorative justice would be used in punishing the students involved in the cheating incident. A day later, district spokeswoman Boss sent out a news release refuting Garland's statements.

"While the district is a proponent of restorative justice, and uses the practice in many cases, restorative justice is not being utilized in the current CdM process," according to the district's news release.

In her email, Garland explained that district administrators ignored her and that the situation has damaged her reputation.

"The school system has approached this violation of absolute integrity with little vigor and apparent indifference with a focus on public relations instead of corrective actions," she wrote.

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times