Southern California school board votes to punish student hackers

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A Southern California school board voted after a lengthy late-night session to punish 11 students accused of hacking into computers at a wealthy public high school to access tests and change grades.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District board deliberated for hours and emerged shortly after midnight Wednesday to announce it had decided to approve all the recommendations from administrators at Corona del Mar High School, the Orange County Register reported.

Many of those recommendations involve punishment that is less severe than an expulsion, but the district could not give further specifics on the discipline, citing confidentiality rules, according to the newspaper.


The students are suspected of hacking into computers with the help of a private tutor who has been missing since police searched his home on Dec. 18.

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Under agreements approved by the board, the 11 students will be allowed to attend nearby schools in the district. They will also have their disciplinary records destroyed.

"The Board's action imposes discipline upon these students for the maximum allowed by the Education Code for what occurred at Corona del Mar High School," board President Karen Yelsey said during her announcement of the board's votes.

The agreements, known as stipulated expulsions, allow the district to avoid hearings where officials would be required to provide detailed evidence of the students' wrongdoing and allow the families to respond, the Register said. The parents must also agree not to challenge the punishment in court.

Six of the 11 students listed as involved in the hacking scandal have already left the district, the board stated.

The vote came following a heated public session during which some parents of four of the 11 accused students questioned why their kids have been targeted when the tutor was working with as many as 150 students.

"You cannot simply throw a handful of students to the wolves and claim that you have solved the cheating crisis," a group of three families wrote in a letter to the district, according to the Register. "There are plenty more kids walking around your campus who are as guilty, if not more so, than any of the kids wrapped up in this scandal."

School officials were auditing 750,000 grades to see how many may have been altered by hackers over the past year, district spokeswoman Laura Boss said earlier this month. Boss declined to comment on the parents' complaints.

The tutor, Timothy Lai, is wanted for questioning, although police have not issued an arrest warrant.

The school is located in an extremely wealthy coastal area of Orange County where pressure to get into Ivy League schools is intense.

In 2009, officials said that 64 percent of students at the school had acknowledged in a survey that they had cheated on a test or quiz, the Register reported.

The recent scandal surfaced publicly in December after a student told administrators and police that the tutor had asked for his help to break into teachers' computers. The student gave the names of 11 other students who were involved. They were questioned by school administrators on Dec. 17 and recommended for expulsion two days later.

In an email to all students and parents, Principal Kathy Scott said a small group of students had "threatened the academic integrity" of the school.