Feb. 3, 2012
Teachers and administrators at Palos Verdes High School were aware of the rumors swirling through the halls: a group of students were selling test answers to their peers.
But the breakthrough came when a teacher noticed that a normally strong student bombed a final, getting just a quarter of the answers correct.
Closer examination revealed that the answers the student bubbled in were an exact match for an exam that had been administered the prior year. The student had obtained the answers, and erroneously assumed that the teacher would use the same test two years in a row.
A police investigation then led to last week’s arrest of three 16-year-old boys accused of breaking into the school, hacking into their teachers’ computers and changing their grades. A little more than a week after the arrest, new details are emerging.
The case – along with a developing story in Torrance that is strikingly similar – is a sign of the times, underscoring the impressive level of technical prowess possessed by some of today’s teenagers, and how the knowledge they have can be used for ill.
It also raises interesting questions about the college prospects for students smart enough to hack into computers but dishonest enough to use that knowledge for the purpose of cheating.
The three juniors at Palos Verdes High all had GPAs at or above the 4.0 mark – although that was before they were docked for allegedly cheating.
“These kids had very bright futures,” P.V. High Principal Nick Stephany said. “At this point, who knows what’s going to happen.”
Authorities say the crime began with an old-fashioned break-in: The three boys allegedly picked the lock to a janitors’ office late at night when school was closed. They pocketed a master key, sneaked into classrooms, snatched hard copies of tests from teachers’ drawers and tampered with the computers, authorities say.
Police say the students later sold the tests and their answers to their peers for $50 apiece and offered to change grades for $300. It appears they had about eight or nine takers.
Now the three students soon could earn a dubious distinction: becoming the first high school students expelled from the school – and indeed the entire district – in years. Stephany is recommending expulsion for all three, and their first administrative hearing on the matter is scheduled for next week.
In the past three years, only one student has been expelled from the high-performing Palos Verdes Peninsula Unified School District: a middle schooler who brandished a knife on a school bus, Stephany said.
Stephany speculated that the crime may have closed a few collegiate doors for the students. But it isn’t clear how badly this will mess up their chances at getting into good schools.
Officials at UCLA were vague on whether getting expelled hurts an otherwise strong student’s chances of getting accepted. For instance, UCLA admissions applications do not ask students whether they’ve been expelled, said UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez.
However: “If the expulsion is noted in the student’s final transcript, admission officers may look into the reasons for the expulsion, even if the student has already been admitted. They also have flexibility in terms of what, if anything, they would do in these situations.”
Vazquez added that the university rarely sees cases in which a student has been expelled.
In any event, the students not only have an academic problem. Now they each face being charged with two felonies, one for burglary and one for the computer crimes, Palos Verdes Estates police Sgt. Steve Barber said.
“I’ve been working at (the Palos Verdes Estates department) for 16 years and I have never seen anything like this – it was a pretty intense case,” he said. “It was pretty incredible what they had accomplished before they got caught.”
To be sure, if the students are convicted, their records would be cleared once they turn 18, Barber said. (Crimes usually need to be violent to stick on a minor’s record.)
But the students – whose next trial date is set for April – are sure to find themselves saddled with the stress of navigating the juvenile justice system at a time when they are trying to get their academic lives back in order.
The issue surfaced about a month ago in the form of vague hallway chatter, Stephany said. Mindful of the rumors, teachers checked their grade books and noticed discrepancies.
Police and school officials later found easy-to-miss devices attached to USB ports on the computers. These were “keyloggers,” or spy software that makes a record of everything a person types on a computer, thereby enabling the students to obtain information such as the teachers’ passwords.
Barber said the students failed to realize a key detail: Many teachers at Palos Verdes High also keep written accounts of grades – a practice he recommends for all schools.
“So when the teachers are noticing discrepancies online, the red flags start to go up,” he said.
Stephany said although the alleged culprits were good students, they tended to keep to themselves.
“They really weren’t involved with a whole lot of athletics or extracurricular activities,” he said, adding that while he knows most of his students by name, he only knew one of the three alleged culprits, and only vaguely. “There were some minor discipline issues in the past, but nothing major – nothing like this.”
As for the nine students who received tests or had their grades altered, most if not all were suspended. Stephany said seven of those students came forward voluntarily, after learning that the consequences would be far less dire for them if they did so.
He said his ultimate goal is to do what it takes to maintain the academic integrity of the school.
“I’m concerned about doing what’s right and letting the cards fall where they will,” he said.
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