‘One of the most important lessons he’ll learn’

When the mother of a top Corona del Mar High School student answered her phone Dec. 17, she had no idea why school officials were calling to tell her that she needed to come and pick up her son.

For what? She didn’t have a clue.

He was a senior honors student who had never been in trouble.

“I thought maybe he’d gotten pulled in for fighting,” she said. “But he wasn’t a fighter, so that didn’t make sense. I didn’t know what to think.”

When she arrived, she was questioned about Timothy Lance Lai. She knew him. He had tutored her son. In fact, he had been to her house the week before. There they had exchanged a few words and she had offered him tea.

“I had a bad feeling about the guy from the beginning,” she said. “I never bothered to get to know him. It never occurred to me at the time that I should.”

That bad feeling proved prophetic.

Lai, 28, of Irvine, would become the center of the CdM cheating scandal that involved the mother’s son and at least 11 other students. Eleven students ultimately were expelled.

The tutor allegedly provided students with keyloggers and instructed them how to use the devices to access teacher logins and passwords, change their grades and access test questions. Lai, who cannot be located, continues to be a person of interest in the case and is wanted by police for questioning.

But of those involved in the case who can be located, the expelled students and their families, one mother agreed to talk to the Daily Pilot about the CdM cheating scandal. The newspaper granted her request for anonymity in order to protect her son’s identity.


Learning the bad news

Back on that first difficult day, when the mom finally saw her son in an assistant principal’s office at the high school, he was ashen and had been crying.

She remembered that he would often come home from tutoring sessions with Lai, bragging about the tutor’s intelligence and supposedly well-financed lifestyle.

“He would talk about him like he was one of the guys,” she said. “I never understood why that annoyed me so much.”

Still, she paid Lai $45 per hour to tutor her son in Advanced Placement Calculus.

Lai allegedly provided students with questions that would appear on upcoming exams during the tutoring sessions.

Receiving those test questions was her son’s only offense, she said.

“I was appalled that he would participate in that,” she said. “It shows a lack of integrity.”

The senior swore to his mom that he never participated in the keylogging, but he did have knowledge of it.

He never told because he didn’t want to rat out his classmates. That decision would seal his fate with those actually responsible for hacking into the computer system.


Cheating exposed

The district first learned about possible cheating in June 2013, when a science teacher notified CdM administrators that someone had accessed her computer and changed students’ grades, according to an affidavit filed with the Orange County Superior Court.

Two girls were identified as having their grades boosted by a remote computer four days earlier.

One of the two students allegedly told Vladimir Anderson, the school’s resource officer, that her friend installed on the back of a teacher’s computer a device given to her by a tutor that was later removed after the information needed to remotely access the grading database was obtained.

When Anderson attempted to obtain the tutor’s name from the female student, the girl’s mother informed him that they had retained an attorney and declined to make a statement, the papers say.

The girls were suspended from CdM, and the tutor was never identified.

Jane Garland, the school district’s former head of discipline, asserts that Principal Kathy Scott failed to investigate Lai when she supposedly learned of his involvement and identity from a parent in September 2013. Scott, however, has not been able to publicly respond to Garland’s version of events, since district officials are handling all comments regarding the matter and will not publicly discuss details of the case.

The cheating scandal truly erupted on Dec. 17, when the district issued a news release stating that roughly a dozen CdM students had been caught changing grades and accessing tests.

Throughout the process, district officials declined to explain how they found out about the alleged cheating, citing student confidentiality laws.


‘It’s not about the children’

In late January, Garland went public with information, blasting top district officials and calling the situation “a total farce.” She resigned 12 days later.

A male student, who was allegedly involved in the keylogging, approached a female classmate and offered to change a grade for her, Garland explained.

The girl declined, went home and told her parents, who promptly called the school, Garland said.

The male student was questioned by school officials and police; he revealed the names of 11 other students who were being tutored by Lai, Garland said. One of the 12 was ultimately absolved.

“He was told by people he trusted that if he told them everything he knew that it would all be OK,” she said. “Imagine how that child feels today.”

At the beginning of the expulsion process, Garland said, Newport-Mesa Unified officials gave her three tasks: Get the parents to agree to stipulated expulsions, keep the district out of court and push the students toward private schools.

Each of the students and the families met with Garland. She told them the students were being offered stipulated expulsions, which would bar them from returning to CdM for six months but allow them to transfer to another school in the district.

The students, who are all juniors and seniors, were also told that they were not allowed to participate in school athletics or attend school-sponsored events like prom or grad night.

“I listened to 11 children talk to me for hours on end, and I listened to their families,” Garland told the Pilot. “I cried with them. I’ve been doing this 43 years. I know when things are wrong. This is wrong.”

District trustees carefully reviewed every case individually and upheld all of Garland’s negotiated stipulated expulsion agreements, said school Trustee Katrina Foley.

“We took this seriously, and we did our best to do what we felt was right, given the fact that she had negotiated the agreements already,” she said.

Garland said she was told by students that Lai threatened them, saying he would hack into parents’ bank accounts and otherwise ruin their lives if they exposed him.

The Pilot cannot independently verify those claims, or track down Lai, but Garland said the children “were absolutely terrified.”

Garland said she warned district officials that evidence against the students was thin, and the cheating didn’t fall into the category in the education code that required expulsion.

“They were on a trajectory, and they couldn’t stop,” she said. “They’re using verbiage to make people feel that they’re tough. It’s not about the children.”


She didn’t want to agree at first

The mother of the senior student refused to sign the document upon first review.

“We had to sign a document saying that [he] had stolen school property,” she said. “He didn’t do that, so we didn’t want to sign.”

When she raised concerns, district officials told her that each of the students was being accused of doing the same things.

Feeling overwhelmed, she decided to go home and sleep on it.

The other option was to schedule a hearing in front of the district board in the beginning of February. That option meant that her son would not be able to finish the semester and effectively would not graduate as planned in May.

It wasn’t worth it, the mother decided, so the next morning she drove back to the school by herself and signed the document.

Shortly after, an article in the Orange County Register quoted Garland as saying the district was using “restorative justice” with the students. The approach calls for the guilty party to accept responsibility and work to repair the harm caused.

“That’s when the whole thing exploded,” Garland said.

The district issued a news release saying it was taking a hard-line disciplinary approach against the students.

Garland said she was told to no longer speak to the press.

“I became a pariah to them,” she said. “They want the word ‘expelled’ out there because it makes the constituents happy, but you can’t be ‘zero tolerance’ one day and ‘restorative justice’ another.”

The parents of the students involved began to worry.

“We had no idea if the stipulated expulsions were even still going through,” one of the mothers said.

In the meantime, members of the small coastal village continued to talk.

Some spoke in favor of restorative justice, saying that the students should be punished, not ruined. Others criticized the district for allowing the students to transfer to Newport Harbor High School, saying officials were being too soft.

Yolanda Newton, a Newport Harbor High parent, stressed to trustees, before they voted on the expulsions, the importance of sending a message to students who were involved by refusing to allow them to transfer within the district.

“This isn’t run-of-the-mill cheating,” she said. “This was premeditated, sophisticated and ongoing.”

The process has been difficult for those involved.

“I’ve been publicly humiliated by this. It’s awful the things that people say,” the mother of the expelled student said. “It’s bad enough that he was cheating, but everyone thinks he was keylogging. That’s like robbing a bank to me.”

Although more students than the 11 were investigated, Garland and some of the parents say cheating is embedded in the culture of the high school.

Lai was allegedly tutoring more than 150 CdM teens, and according to Garland’s email, each of them had some involvement in the scheme.

The district is continuing to strengthen online security for its grade databases and investigate grade entries, said Laura Boss, district spokeswoman.

However, Garland predicts there won’t be any more investigation into the incident.

“I believe the system is willing to allow these 11 students to take the fall and close the book on this matter,” she wrote in her email.

Now, less than a month after the students were expelled, four of the students are enrolled at Newport Harbor and seven have left the district.

The mother of the senior student said her son is “keeping his head down” and focusing on his future.

“This may end up being one of the most important lessons he’ll learn,” she said.