Police search home of CdM tutor

Newport Beach police investigators searched the Irvine home of the tutor police suspect assisted a dozen Corona del Mar High School students in a recent grade-changing scheme, authorities confirmed Thursday.

Police have been looking for Timothy Lance Lai, 28, to ask him about his involvement since news of the incident broke in December, said Jennifer Manzella, spokeswoman for the Newport Beach Police Department.

Manzella declined to elaborate on what authorities found when they searched the apartment.

However, an arrest warrant has not been issued for Lai, she said.

Lai allegedly provided the students with a keylogger — a small device that can be placed in the back of a computer to monitor keystrokes — and taught them how to use it to swipe teachers' logins and passwords.

With the recorded data, the students allegedly changed grades and accessed test questions.

"We're still very interested in speaking with him," Manzella said.

School officials were aware of students cheating with the help of a tutor in June 2013, said Newport-Mesa Unified School District spokeswoman Laura Boss.

"Through the school and police investigation the mention of a tutor was shared, but there was not enough substantiated evidence to ever confirm the name of the tutor or any involvement," she said. "At that time it could not be supported beyond a rumor."

Those rumors surfaced again in September, but district officials could not pinpoint specific incidents to investigate, Boss said.

That changed Dec. 17, when substantial information about the tutor and cheating came to light and the district began an investigation.

While police continue to search for Lai, the students who allegedly altered grades and accessed exams are facing expulsion from the district, according to district officials.

CdM Principal Kathy Scott recommended that the district begin the expulsion process, Boss said.

All expulsions must be approved by the school board within 30 days of the recommendation.

A closed hearing will determine whether individual students should be expelled based on evidence provided to the board, said Board President Karen Yelsey.

If students are expelled, they are prohibited from returning to any Newport-Mesa Unified school for a year, according to district policy.

While Boss declined to confirm the number of students involved, she said they are mostly juniors and seniors.

The students are no longer attending classes, but have access to assignments from home, Boss said.

"It's our goal to assure that they're not being jeopardized academically," she said.

The NBPD has been working with the district for several weeks to investigate the scope of the cheating, Scott wrote in an email to parents Sunday.

"There are many questions and concerns about this incident and the potential longterm impact on our school," she wrote. "While the negative publicity about this cheating situation is concerning, we are obligated to do a thorough transparent investigation to protect the integrity of all CdM student records and grades."

While students involved in the incident could face criminal charges, none have been filed, Manzella said.

"The district attorney will make determinations about what charges will be filed after we complete our investigation," she said.

Scott assured parents in an email that the district is confident keyloggers are no longer being used at the high school.

Newport-Mesa Unified has also implemented new security measures that alert teachers to all grade changes in the computer system.

As part of the ongoing investigation, the district is analyzing all CdM student grades issued in the past year.

School administrators are visiting classrooms this week to inform students of the analysis, Scott wrote in the email.

"If any student has information about grade changes or the use of stolen teacher documents, I encourage them to come to the administration directly as soon as possible," she wrote.

While Yelsey declined to discuss specifics, she remains optimistic that the school's reputation of providing a high-quality education can be maintained.

"Everyone feels there is something positive that could come out of this," she said. "Teachers, students and parents are banding together to make sure that this doesn't happen again."

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