Apodaca: Cheating story is not going away

The Corona del Mar High School cheating scandal is becoming one of those stories that just won't die, which is great for those of us in the news business, but perhaps not so much for the community at large.

Wild rumors, suspicion, deep-seated resentments and clashing opinions about the case keep bouncing around Newport-Mesa. Just when you think the rebounding has begun to lose momentum, a new aspect to the story arises, and the bouncing takes off again.

For those of you who have been vacationing in Antarctica for the past few months and missed all the action, here's a recap: A group of CdM students — I'll call them "the CdM 11" — reportedly at the instigation of a private tutor allegedly used a gizmo called a keylogger to hack teachers' computers to change grades and access tests.

The CdM 11 were expelled from the high school earlier this month. The tutor is wanted for questioning by police but remains at large. And now — the latest twist — a district administrator has resigned after accusing the district of bungling the whole affair.

"Total farce," "disturbed and saddened," and "serious deficiencies in the management and operation of the district" — these phrases represent just a sampling from the harsh appraisal offered by Jane Garland, who handled Newport-Mesa's discipline program but last week said she couldn't continue under the circumstances.

Garland, a fervent advocate of the restorative justice style of discipline, accused the district of abandoning those principles in favor of a quick, ham-fisted, one-size-fits-all response.

The CdM 11 weren't all equally culpable, she said, but the district chose to circumvent her recommendations against expulsion. She also accused the district of singling out a handful of students for punishment before a full investigation into the possibility of other students' involvement is complete.

It's all a big mess, and very sad. I'm sorry to see Garland, who I've always respected, so completely at odds with other officials, including Supt. Fred Navarro, who restored steady, intelligent leadership to the district since assuming the top job in 2012.

But I'm also concerned that another victim of the CdM 11 scandal might be restorative justice itself. If this case results in, or reflects, a district retreat from adopting restorative practices, that would be a shame.

It's also unfortunate that for many, restorative justice has come to be synonymous with "no justice." To be clear, the practice — which mirrors some techniques advocated by reformers in the criminal justice system — doesn't call for rule breakers to get off scot-free. Rather, it represents an attempt to understand the complex roots of bad behavior, and to administer a mix of discipline, intervention and ongoing support appropriate to each individual case.

Navarro, in an interview at his office last week, said the district remains committed to implementing restorative justice, but that training has yet to begin.

"What we asked the schools to do is try to get to know the kids and find out ways to help kids understand bad behavior," he said. "It's looking at kids holistically. You want the student to rebuild and come out a stronger person.

"But part of restorative justice is there is a consequence. We hold students responsible to restore relationships and repair the harm. It's not a get-out-of-jail-free pass."

Navarro said he couldn't provide any additional details about the CdM 11's stipulated expulsions — "stipulated" means there were certain terms or conditions to the expulsions, but those terms remain private. Six of the 11 have left the district; the remainder are presumably now enrolled at other Newport-Mesa high schools.

"It was handled the way it should have been," Navarro responded when I asked if, in hindsight, anything should have been done differently.

District policies and the education code were followed, he said.

"I'm confident that any student that goes through this process, their rights were observed," he said. "We do everything we can to follow procedures."

I also asked Navarro to clarify a couple of points that have been making the rounds of the rumor mill since the scandal surfaced.

First, some parents and students at other high schools in the district have expressed concern that their campuses are being treated as dumping grounds for CdM's miscreants. There's also worry that colleges will now look askance at applicants from our schools, and that conscientious students will be tainted by association.

Neither view is correct, the superintendent said.

All the high schools, at any given time, might accept students from other campuses.

As far as the possibility of colleges discounting Newport-Mesa students because of the scandal, Navarro said that just wouldn't be the case.

"This is a phenomenon that happens at every school in every district," he said. "Colleges are aware of that."

District spokeswoman Laura Boss, who sat in on the interview, added that when she did an Internet search she found many other cases involving students using keyloggers to hack computers.

That's cold comfort to many of us who, not long ago, had never even heard of a keylogger. Now it's a permanent part of the Newport-Mesa vocabulary, thanks to the scandal that just won't quit.

Last week a school board member told a reporter that parents were tired of the cheating story and wanted to put it behind them. I wish them luck.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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