Students may get to stay in district

Students involved in the Corona del Mar High School grade-changing incident may not be forced to leave the district.

The roughly dozen CdM students accused of hacking into the high school's computers to access tests and change grades are facing various disciplinary actions, including expulsion and stipulated expulsion, which allow them to transfer to another NMUSD high school, said district spokeswoman Laura Boss.

Stipulated expulsions also seal students disciplinary records, so they are not available during the college admissions process.

"I can confirm that one of the possible components of a stipulated expulsion is that the student may be allowed to attend another school within the school district," Boss said. "At this time, anything else is speculation and rumor."

Newport-Mesa Unified trustees will be tasked with deciding the fate of the students at an upcoming board meeting.

The exact date of the board meeting has not been determined, said Trustee Katrina Foley.

"We haven't received any report on this as board members," she said. "We don't have information about it so far."

To ensure that trustees keep bias out of their decision-making, they are often relatively kept in the dark about disciplinary issues until it comes to them for a vote, Foley said.

The dozen students are accused of attaching a keylogger — a small device that can be placed in the back of a computer to monitor keystrokes — to at least one teacher's computer to swipe logins and passwords.

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

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

Trustees must make a decision about how to discipline the students within 30 days of the recommendation, according to school board policy.

Newport-Mesa parents have been sending emails to the board in response to reports that "restorative justice" would be used in reprimanding the students involved in the cheating incident.

The district this school year moved away from the longtime zero-tolerance policy and began using restorative justice, which encourages students to develop empathy and understand the reasons for their actions.

"I want to make it clear that this is not being handled under the restorative justice process," Foley said.

If the board decides to expel the students, they are prohibited from returning to any Newport-Mesa school for a year, according to district policy.

Boss declined to specify the number of students involved.

The district is reviewing 52,000 grade entries from the past year to identify how many student records have been compromised, Boss said.

Newport Beach police have been working with the district for nearly a month to investigate the scope of the cheating. While the students could face criminal charges for their actions, none have been filed yet.

Several parents spoke during the board's Tuesday meeting to praise CdM administrators and raise concerns about how the scandal might affect their children's college admissions.

Out of the 398 students who graduated from CdM last year, 99% of them attended college in the fall, with the majority of them enrolling at four-year universities, according to the school profile published by the district.

"I'm concerned about my daughter's college applications and how those schools are going to be looking at those," said Michele Caston, a member of the parent teacher association, whose daughter is a senior at CdM.

Board president Karen Yelsey assured parents that high school counselors working for the district have discussed the issue with colleges and the cheating scandal would not affect students who weren't involved.

"They will not treat CdM applications differently than they have in the past," she said during the meeting. "They understand what happened and say it happens at other schools as well."

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