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Commentary: Here’s a better punishment for the CdM students

It took the school board more than five hours of hand-wringing in a closed-door meeting to make the wrong decisions in the Corona del Mar cheating scandal.

In fact, in all of the discussions of the scandal, there has been a failure to address an option that transcends the short-term concern over how the children should have been disciplined.

Before addressing the option, it is worth a few words to recap the immense bungling that led to the FBI’s involvement in the case.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District’s first mistake was the failure to make a public statement in June that cheating was suspected at the school and that an investigation was starting. Instead, the district waited until the news reached the general public and was then forced to confirm it.


As anyone in public relations knows, staying “in front” of an issue is the key to containing it. He who breaks the news owns the story.

The second mistake is the continued attempt to sweep this mess under the rug. My visit to the school district website did not reveal any mention of the scandal or the investigation, which now includes a request by Newport Beach police detectives for help from an FBI lab.

The scandal is a hot mess that will not go away by ignoring it.

Now, about that option. For the record, I do not support zero-tolerance policies or any other form of blanket punishment. That’s not only because violations of school policy often have gray areas, but also because the punishment is usually counterproductive.


Instead of throwing the book — or in this case, several chapters — at the cheating students, they should have had their freedom converted into an effort that could have benefited the community.

Say, for example, a master carpenter is convicted of cocaine possession. By putting him in jail, society loses an opportunity to convert his skill to a benefit. In this case, the carpenter should be forced to work a significant number of hours repairing the homes of war veterans.

How about the physician who is convicted of writing prescriptions to herself to support her addiction to pain medication? We gain nothing through traditional punishment. Instead, the doctor should be forced to put in a lot of time providing free healthcare to veterans or children.

In the case of the alleged cheaters, they should have been given the option to devote major hours of free time mentoring and tutoring kids at Costa Mesa’s Westside elementary schools. Using this alternative takes away their precious freedom while providing a valuable service to the community.

Something else I’d like to see is the parents forcing their children to go public with what they did, vowing to never do it again and describing what they will do to make amends. That would be a sign of good character — but don’t hold your breath for it to happen.

Costa Mesa resident and Fairview Park Citizens Advisory Committee member STEVE SMITH is a former Daily Pilot columnist.