Opinion split on students' expulsion

Students and parents gave the school board mixed marks Wednesday after it decided to remove 11 students from Corona del Mar High School for allegedly hacking into the school computer system and enhancing their grades.

Some said the kids should be given a second chance, while others said the punishments, which were confidential and varied by student, were not harsh enough.

CdM sophomore Skyler Gullick said trustees made the right decisions.

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

Newport Beach resident Missy Rakestraw, whose three children graduated from Newport Harbor High School in 2006, 2008 and 2013, said the students got off too easily.

"I think they need a greater consequence," she said.

The board of trustees deliberated for more than five hours, after which it emerged Wednesday morning in favor of a stipulated expulsion, meaning the students could attend another high school within the district. Full expulsion would have meant removal from the Newport-Mesa Unified School District.

Six have already left the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, which leaves five who could attend any of the high schools within the NMUSD.

Three students accused of participating in the cheating mentioned at a recent weekend party that they would be attending Newport Harbor High School next semester, a possibility that raised concerns by Newport Harbor parents and students. Parents have also told the Daily Pilot that at least some of the students are transferring to their crosstown rival.

"I would feel really weird if they came here because most of the students around here are excellent students and wouldn't cheat," Newport Harbor sophomore Jerrid Sutton said.

"I would hope they don't start cheating or hacking computers here at least," junior Mathew Barrett said.

Senior Miles Vinikow expressed cautious optimism.

"I guess I would like to assume the best in them and think that they've learned their lessons and wouldn't interfere with students here and their academics," Vinikow said. "But it does raise some concern about the legitimacy of our grades and getting into college."

The pressure to succeed is not isolated to CdM, one of the top-achieving campuses in Orange County.

Isabel Bishop, 16, attends another highly competitive campus, Early College High School, where the pressure to succeed in class and earn admission into a top college is intense.

She spends hours studying every night – and spends time tutoring other students – but she said she is not tempted to cheat.

"I know it's a really, really intense workload but I know I can work through it," the sophomore said. "I value integrity too much, plus when people cheat they tend to not learn the material as much, and so that comes to bite them in the butt when they advance to further and further studies."

Of the allegations at CdM, she said, "I feel that's very disrespectful to the other students who go to the school" because even the innocent will suffer from a reputation tainted in media reports.

Back at CdM, there was recognition that the offenders made a mistake but were young and teachable.

"It's kind of hard," said Gina Wirta, whose sophomore twin sons attend CdM. "They have to keep them schooled, but it's scary because they could do it in another school. Hopefully, they learned their lessons."

In December, district officials said that the students, allegedly with the help of a tutor, attached a keystroke logger to the backs of several teachers' computers to record passwords required to enter the system.

The students then allegedly changed grades and got access to English, science and history exams, some being at the honors and advancement placement levels.

CdM PTA President Sue Ellen O'Connor would not say if she agreed with the board of trustees' decision, but said she's ready to move past the issue.

"I'm looking forward to CdM moving on and getting beyond this and getting back to the great school that it is," she said.

— Emily Erwin contributed to this report.

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