Thursday, January 30, 2014

Cheating at Corona del Mar High School: Did They Get Away With It?

Where to go? Where to go? Where will our children go to college? College was easier for my generation in the 60’s. Even the most prestigious colleges had admissions rates over 50%. The great public universities were as prestigious as the elite private universities, and a lot cheaper. It was assumed at my San Francisco high school that if you were any good, you would go to Berkeley. (I was good, but didn’t) A few might go to Stanford and the Ivies, but not many. Our generation though, the Boomers, want our children to go to the best: “Ivy or Bust,” unless it’s Stanford, MIT, Johns Hopkins, or CalTech. Duke, Carnegie Mellon, and Northwestern, along with Amherst and Williams are acceptable alternatives with NYU in the east, Washington University and Notre Dame in the Midwest, Emory, Tulane and Vanderbilt in the South, and USC in Southern California acceptable fallbacks. A few elite public universities are acceptable, if absolutely necessary. The elite prep schools tout the colleges where their preppies matriculate. Of course, this perspective is crazy, but the successful parents want only the best for their children. They move to the elite suburbs and enroll their children either in a prep school or one of the nation’s elite public high schools. Peer pressure kicks in at these high schools. The parents will pay small fortunes to private tutors and prep courses. Nothing is too much. Corona del Mar High School in the Newport Mesa School District is one of these high schools. Newport Beach, California is one of the most affluent communities in Orange County and the United States. Corona del Mar (CDM) is an exclusive neighborhood of Newport Beach. It even has its own high school. Cheating is epidemic throughout education today. Even principals and teachers (Atlanta, Houston, Philadelphia et al) cheat to boost student scores. College professors, deans, and admissions officers have cheated to boost their U.S. News & World Reports rankings. I remember a law student, not at my current school, who cheated by seducing a young assistant in the Registrar’s Office to slip him copies of the exams in advance. He was not expelled, but simply suspended for two years. Decades later I saw him advertising on TV for clients. The electronic age has facilitated cheating. Plagiarism is common at all levels with even law students claiming they never knew plagiarism, “whatever that is,” is wrong. catches a substantial amount of plagiarism, but not all. Not all the students at the nation’s top prep schools and public high schools are bright enough to win the admissions lottery. Even the top students feel the pressure to excel at a higher level. The temptation to cheat becomes irresistible to many high school students. Beckman High School, also in Orange County, witnessed two seniors, described as very bright, obtain a teacher’s pass code. They signed on, raised their grades, and lowered the grades of classmates. They were publicly arrested at the school in front of other students, and then expelled from all schools in the district. They forfeited the admissions lottery. Colleges do not like to admit known cheaters. Students at Great Neck North High School on Long Island and a few other schools paid five people to take the SAT’s or ACT’s for them. Fake ID’s were prepared for the test takers, who received up to $3,500/test. 15 students and 5 test takers were arrested and criminally prosecuted. The students also lost the admissions lottery. 70 students at prestigious Stuyvesant High School cheated on the Regents Exams in 2012 by using smart phones. The successful cheaters vastly outnumber the ones who get caught. CDM High School is the latest in the string of cheating scandals at the nation’s elite public high schools. It is also just the most recent at CDM. About 150 students hired Timothy Lance Lei, a private tutor, for assistance. Lai was a popular tutor because of his reputation of raising students’ grades. He provided an inconspicuous key logger to at least 12 students to attach to teachers’ computers to monitor keystrokes, which would include the signon info. The students then logged on, raising their grades. The Newport-Mesa Unified School District held a “closed” hearing Tuesday night, which lasted past midnight. The District announced the expulsion of 11 students, the assumption being that the 12th student was the one who reported the cheating. “Expulsion” has different meaning though. CDM’s principal recommended expulsion from the District. Unlike the Tustin Unified School District, which completely expelled the two Beckman High students, Newport-Mesa essentially transferred them to other schools in the District. The expulsions will not be entered on their transcripts; indeed, pursuant to the “stipulated expulsion” the disciplinary actions would be expunged from their records. If though an admissions officer asks why they changed schools, then they would have to respond with the truth. Parents in affluent school districts are quite litigious in protecting their children against disciplinary actions. The District attached a condition to the sanctions. If a student and parents accept the sanctions, then the parents must sign a waiver agreeing not to sue. The reputation of CDM has been tarnished. It’s possible innocent students at CDM will face a disadvantage in college admissions. Non-cheating applicants throughout the country are disadvantaged by cheaters who tamper with transcripts. The claim is also that the cheating was not limited to the 12 students. The District is auditing all of its 750,000 grades to detect any additional grade tampering. Many critics view the District’s action as extremely lenient. They want a strong message sent against cheating. A stipulated expulsion is not an expulsion. Expunged records mean the miscreants might still get into an elite college. The District sent a mixed message that breaking into rooms, hacking into computers, and changing grades is not totally unacceptable. An orange light, rather than a red light, is blinking on cheating in the Newport-Mesa School District, at least for affluent parents willing to litigate. . The District’s argument is that California law makes it difficult to expel students for a first offense, absent a threat of violence, without providing substantial due process rights. The parents might have litigated a full expulsion, but if they did, then their students’ names would become public. They would not be getting into an elite college.

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