A tutor pleaded guilty Tuesday to helping change the grades for more than a dozen Corona del Mar High School students and was sentenced to a year in jail and placed on five years probation.
Timothy Lance Lai, 29, pleaded guilty to 20 counts of computer access and fraud and a single count of second-degree burglary, all felonies.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Brock Zimmon, who objected to the plea deal offered by Orange County Superior Court Judge Robert Fitzgerald, said he believes up to 15 students were involved in the cheating.
The defendant’s attorney said he did not want the students to have to go through a trial.
“Mr. Lai is very appreciative that we could resolve the case without further litigation,” attorney Don Rubright told City News Service. “From the beginning he did not want any of the students or Corona del Mar High School personnel to have to testify in any contested proceedings. He is satisfied that he has been treated fairly by the judicial system and is hopeful that with his plea this situation can be put behind everyone involved.”
Lai could have faced up to 16 years and four months in custody if convicted at trial.
Between April 1 and June 14, 2013, Lai accessed the school’s computer records with passwords obtained from keylogging devices and changed the grades of three students taught by two teachers, Zimmon said.
One of the teachers realized the grades had been changed and notified school administrators, who reported it to police, Zimmon said.
Investigators found another keylogging device on a third teacher’s computer in December 2013, according to the prosecutor.
Lai initially fled the country for about 10 months but was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport in October, Zimmon said. Lai also tried to destroy evidence, but investigators were able to retrieve it, according to Zimmon.
The school’s principal, Kathy Scott, told Fitzgerald that Lai’s “devious actions” helped students gain an unfair advantage.
“With his perceived status, some students he tutored were encouraged to engage in an elaborate scheme to cheat on tests, change grades, and steal teacher information,” Scott said.
Lai gave students technology that would allow them to track the computer strokes of teachers and pave the way through passwords to confidential teacher records, Scott said.
“This unauthorized access allowed students to cheat, and they would not have been able to do so without Mr. Lai’s coaching, facilitating, and masterminding the idea of using the key-logger technology,” Scott said.
The cheating scandal was “devastating” to the community, she added.
“I cannot begin to adequately describe for you the disruption that occurred as a result of this cheating scandal,” Scott told the judge. “Teachers had to review each and every one of their grades to determine if the integrity of any grades or tests had been violated or tampered with. Over a dozen teachers had to be pulled from their classroom instruction and replaced with substitute teachers so tests could be rewritten in order to maintain the integrity of the testing process.”
The scandal also “harmed many teacher/student relationships due to a newfound distrust between the teachers and students not involved in the scandal,” the principal said.
One teacher even took early retirement, Scott said.
“All of the students involved in this cheating scandal had never been involved in any serious school discipline before this incident,” Scott said. “However, this incident created such a newsworthy controversy that the entire community was harmed by the media attention and the disruption that occurred as a result of the cheating scandal. This damaged the academic integrity of CDM and devalued the perception of the CDM diploma. CDM counselors found it necessary to send emails and make multiple phone calls to universities and colleges in response to questions from various college admissions officers about suspected cheating by students who were not involved in the cheating scandal.”
Eleven students were expelled from Newport-Mesa Unified School District, but expulsion was suspended for five of the pupils so they could attend another school in the district, according to district spokesman Matthew Jennings. Four of those five students took that option, he said.
—City News Service