Scandal rocks private school

Times Staff Writer

Six sophomores were expelled and more than a dozen other students faced suspensions Tuesday in a cheating scandal that has rocked Harvard-Westlake, a top-tier Los Angeles private school with a national reputation for its academics.

Administrators said students conspired to steal Spanish and history tests by distracting teachers in their classrooms. The tests were then shown to several other students before midterm exams last month, said Harvard-Westlake President Thomas Hudnut.

The history department had become suspicious about the world and Europe II exams when several students scored exceptionally well. Then on Feb. 8, the department received an anonymous tip that cheating had occurred. Based on that report, several students were called to the dean's office and accused of being involved, while others came forward to confess, Hudnut said.

The six students accused of stealing the exams will not be allowed to return to the school. Students accused of viewing advance copies of the Spanish III and world history tests were suspended for varying lengths of time, Hudnut said.

Administrators announced the outcome of a nearly three-weeks-long investigation by the school's honor board -- composed of students and faculty -- at an assembly Tuesday at Harvard-Westlake's North Hollywood campus, which serves 10th through 12th graders. The honor board issued expulsions in part because the acts were premeditated, Hudnut said.

Hudnut, who previously was headmaster, said the incident was an unprecedented "breach of trust" at a school that perennially produces among the nation's top SAT and Advanced Placement scores and numerous National Merit semifinalists.

"I've been at the school for 21 years and I have never heard of an exam or test being" stolen, said Hudnut, who was in New York attending a conference. "This is an aberration and as a result, an honor board made up of students and faculty wanted to respond very forthrightly to it because something like this has to be addressed and dealt with."

Hudnut said it was unlikely that the students in those classes would be required to retake the exams, since most students did not cheat. Those who admitted viewing the tests, however, will probably have their grades adjusted. Teachers and deans will hold several forums for students to discuss the school's honor code, which every student must sign.

The cheating scandal has provoked a wave of self-reflection at the closely knit campus, where about 870 students are enrolled. An additional 730 students attend the middle school in Holmby Hills. Harvard-Westlake's annual tuition is $25,000.

Earlier this month, six middle school students were expelled for violations related to drug possession. Those students would be allowed to reapply, but admission was not guaranteed, Hudnut said.

An opinion posted to the online blog of the Chronicle, Harvard-Westlake's campus newspaper, referred to the school's reputation for "superior academics" and said the cheating incident had "tainted the most precious and valued aspect of the school."

"Walking through the lunch area, one is inundated with speculation as to who will not be returning to the Harvard-Westlake community," wrote senior Michael Kaplan. "In classes, teachers have questioned outright whether there is an actual community anymore. At a school where students leave their backpacks strewn across the school, teachers now feel the need to lock their offices and question every piece of 'original' work."

According to a national survey of high school students by the Los Angeles-based Josephson Institute of Ethics, young people display deeply entrenched habits of dishonesty. The 2006 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth, a biennial national survey, found high rates of cheating, lying and theft. In that report, 60% of students said they had cheated on a test, and one in three used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment.

Hudnut conceded that the incident probably would harm relationships between some students and teachers on the campus, at least initially.

"I think, in all honesty, something like this can sow some seeds of doubt," he said. "But after a tentative period in which teachers and faculty assess the recent actions things will actually not only return to status quo but [the incident will] serve to forge closer bonds."

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