Accountability Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Future Uncertain for Students Caught in Palos Verdes High Grade Scandal

Future Uncertain for Students Caught in Palos Verdes High Grade Scandal

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.

Follow Rob Kuznia on Twitter at

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

Case of cursing LAUSD teacher raises legal questions about secret recordings

Case of cursing LAUSD teacher raises legal questions about secret recordings

Published Oct. 12, 2013


It’s a story as old as smartphones.

A teacher has a weak moment in class and loses his or her cool — perhaps flipping a desk, or berating a student. A student in the class uses his or her mobile device to record the meltdown. The video or audio recording ends up on the Internet, and the teacher gets in trouble.

In the case of a high school English teacher at HArts Academy in Harbor City, the meltdown took the form of a profane tirade in response to being heckled by a student.

The teacher, who last week was placed on paid leave while Los Angeles Unified School District administrators investigate the matter, argues that she shouldn’t be disciplined because the student broke the law by making the recording.

But is that true?

It turns out the answer is complicated. Under California Education Code Section 51512, it indeed is illegal for any person — including a student — to use an electronic device to record what is happening in the classroom without the consent of the teacher.

But here is where the matter gets tricky: The teeth in the law really applies only to people who are not students. That is, any nonpupil who is caught recording a classroom discussion without the teacher’s consent can be charged with a misdemeanor.

“If I want to audit my kid’s class — maybe I think the material violates some religious belief — I can’t record the class without the teacher’s permission,” said Rebecca Lonergan, an assistant professor of law at USC.

When it comes to students who are caught surreptitiously recording their teachers, the punishment is determined by school administrators.

“If it’s a student, you’re not going to criminally prosecute them for recording their teacher,” said Lonergan, who also has worked with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, where she dealt with many wiretapping cases. After all, “they may be doing it with good motivations, as a study aid.”

That reportedly wasn’t the case for the student who recorded the HArts teacher, whose name the Daily Breeze has declined to publish.

According to the teacher, the student had been egging her on in front of the 12th-grade class.

That student then allegedly brought the recording to a faculty member on the campus of Narbonne High School, the comprehensive high school from which the brand-new academy split this fall. The HArts Academy teacher contends the Narbonne teacher began disseminating the recording to others on campus.

Does this mean that the student who recorded the teacher is subject to greater discipline because her intent was to do harm to the teacher? Not necessarily.

LAUSD spokeswoman Ellen Morgan said the district policy is that cellphones are not allowed to be turned on in class. The school policy does not distinguish between using a phone to text with a friend or using it to embarrass a teacher.

“On is on,” she said. “The policy clearly states it shouldn’t be on.”

Outside of the classroom, the laws on surreptitious recordings in California are relatively strict.

California is among 12 states nationwide to require “two-party consent,” meaning a conversation between two people in person or over the phone cannot be recorded unless both parties are aware. (The law also applies to conversations with more than two participants.)

The other 38 states, and the District of Columbia, require just one party to be aware.

Two-party consent law — codified in California law by Penal Code Section 632 — means an incriminating statement cannot be used against a person who was secretly recorded by another person who was not acting as an agent of law enforcement. In other words, the evidence is not admissible in court.

Does this mean that the teacher can be disciplined even though the evidence that launched the investigation was obtained as the result of an illegal act?

According to a precedent case in 1999, the answer is yes. In Evens v. Superior Court, Karen Evens, a science teacher at LAUSD, was surreptitiously videotaped by two students. Although reports online are not clear about what the video captured, it’s clear that it depicted some sort of misconduct on the part of the teacher.

The LAUSD school sought to use it as evidence in a disciplinary hearing. Through the teachers union, Evens filed a lawsuit arguing that the evidence was not permissible in court.

Ultimately, the California Court of Appeal ruled against the teacher.

The students, meanwhile, were suspended.

As for the student in this case, LAUSD officials said the punishment will depend on several factors.

“You always look at discipline of students as a continuum,” said Chris Ortiz, LAUSD’s director of school operations. “We look at: Does the student have a prior history of this type of violation?”

If so, he said, a suspension might be in order. If not, “we look at other means of correction — volunteering at the school, maybe, or writing a letter of apology.”

Officials from United Teachers Los Angeles declined to comment.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Professor: Many of us suffer from ‘iDisorder,’ due to over-use of social media and mobile devices

Professor: Many of us suffer from ‘iDisorder,’ due to over-use of social media and mobile devices

March 11, 2012


Know anybody who can’t make it through dinner without checking his smartphone? Who has a tendency to boast a little on Facebook? Who is made a little melancholy by social media but still can’t pull herself away?

CSUDH professor Larry Rosen has become the go-to expert for all things social media. (Brittany Murray / Staff photographer)
CSUDH professor Larry Rosen has become the go-to expert for all things social media. (Brittany Murray / Staff photographer)

Is that person you?

A psychology professor at California State University, Dominguez Hills, is gaining prominence for his argument that more and more of us are exhibiting signs of what he has coined an iDisorder. That is, we are, through the use of technology devices, manifesting symptoms of narcissism, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, social phobia, hypochondria and other psychiatric maladies.

The professor, Larry Rosen — whose visibility as a “psychology of technology” expert is on the rise — says that in this age of hyper-connectivity, most people see a little of themselves in at least some of the telltale symptoms.

The good news, he says, is there are remedies — simple solutions that don’t require disconnecting and trying to live like it’s 1985. (Or aiming a handgun at your daughter’s laptop and shooting it full of holes, as one fed-up man actually did earlier this year in North Carolina.)

“What I’m on my high horse about is focus,” Rosen said in a recent phone interview, while sitting with a laptop in the waiting room of his auto mechanic — an irony that wasn’t lost on him. “This is the crux of my talk. I’ll show you how distracted you are, and how we can get you to focus better.”

Rosen has been a professor at CSU Dominguez Hills for decades. But in the past couple of years he’s become an international go-to expert on the topic of social media — and its effect on our brains.

His new book, “iDisorder” — co-authored by fellow CSU Dominguez Hills professors Nancy Cheever and L. Mark Carrier — recently received a favorable review in The New York Times.

Rosen is frequently quoted in national media outlets, and he clearly welcomes the attention. His website includes a list of media interviews he’s done this year, and it isn’t short. In May and June alone, the credits include The New York Times, Businessweek, The Boston Globe, the Sydney Morning Herald and PBS — and that barely scratches the surface.

The headlines can themselves be anxiety inducing.

“Are We Addicted to Facebook? It’s Complicated!” “Mobile Devices: A Constant Craving That May Be Changing Our Personalities.” “Do You Suffer From These 4 Tech Addictions?” “Too Much Technology for Kids is Bad for Development, Says New Study.”

Central to Rosen’s premise is the idea that technology doesn’t make us crazy, but often exacerbates our crazy tendencies, or even triggers their development.

Logging on to your laptop the minute you get home from work every day could be a warning sign for obsessive-compulsive disorder. Posting a dozen daily status updates on Facebook that make frequent use of the words “I” or “me” could be a byproduct of narcissism.

Writing updates that use more swear words, fewer positive-emotion words and more religious words correlates to depressive behavior. Missing meetings or deadlines at work because one has been surfing the Web raises a red flag for ADHD. (One study says more than three-quarters of computer-based task switching focuses on distracting, rather than work-related, activities.)

According to the book, each successive generation generally reports higher and higher levels of anxiety when separated from their technologies. With increased anxiety comes increased usage, and ever more opportunities to develop iDisorders.

Meanwhile, Rosen’s own research has indicated that nobody — regardless of their age or gender — is really all that good at multitasking. Although some forms of multitasking are easier than others.

“The trick is to know when to pay attention to one thing at a time and when it is OK to switch from one thing to another,” he said.

Far from believing technology is bad, Rosen is an early adopter.

In 1984, while an assistant professor at CSU Dominguez Hills, he showed the students a big computer in his classroom; he informed them they would be using it to do their statistics. The punch-card machines were large, bulky and foreboding.

“The students freaked out,” he said. “They were hesitant and scared of it.”

He’s the first to acknowledge he checks his Facebook account every half-hour at a minimum.

Rosen, 62, is a proponent of the tech break. But his idea of implementing such a thing is a little counterintuitive. For instance, in his classroom, Rosen encourages students not to put their cellphones away, but to take them out and use them for one minute at the beginning of class. Then, he instructs students to silence the gadgets and place them face-down on their desks.

“That way you can see it,” he said. “The phone becomes a stimulus to the brain: Don’t worry, you will get to check me in less than 15 minutes.”

He promotes using this technique at work, or the dinner table, or while trying to finish homework.

“It’s designed to get people to stop being distracted and focus,” he said.

On a related note, Rosen advises people to wait a couple of minutes before sending a written email — a technique he refers to as an “e-waiting period.”

“I’ve sent emails I regret,” he said. “Then I send five more emails trying to apologize or straighten it out.”

As for whether all this technology is, on the whole, good or bad for society, Rosen says it’s a wash.

On the positive side, he said, Facebook — despite encouraging narcissistic behavior — in some ways promotes a kinder, gentler society.

“That `like’ button is amazingly powerful,” he said. “People feel amazingly reinforced when 40 people like what they have posted.”

But he also believes there is truth to the idea that the proliferation of social media is taking a toll on our propensity for deep thinking.

Ultimately, the question of whether the digital revolution is good or bad is irrelevant; it’s here, just like the telephone, the TV or the automobile.

The more relevant question, according to Rosen: How do you handle the onslaught without losing your mind?

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze Shifting Paradigms

LAUSD teacher placed on leave after profanity-laden outburst is recorded by student

LAUSD teacher placed on leave after profanity-laden outburst is recorded by student

An audio clip of a high school English teacher repeatedly dropping the F-bomb during a classroom outburst has gone viral on the campus of Narbonne High in Harbor City.

In the clip, which was recorded by a student on Sept. 26, the teacher yells “I know my f–ing s–t. Don’t f— with that. I’m tired of trying to educate you, and you guys resist every step of the f—ing way. Get the f— out of here.” (Listen to the audio clip).

The outburst occurred in the classroom of a fledgling new school for performing arts that is located on the campus of Narbonne High. Called Humanities and Art Academy — or HArts Academy for short — the school officially broke away from the comprehensive high school this fall.

Although students at Narbonne and HArts know the teacher’s name, the Daily Breeze has decided not to publish it, believing that wide dissemination would cause years of damage to her reputation, far outweighing her transgression. The teacher has been placed on paid leave while Los Angeles Unified School District administrators investigate.

Reached at home, the teacher said she is deeply sorry.

“You know, I had a weak moment,” she said. “Forgive me.”

The teacher added that the clip was recorded by a student who had been heckling her in front of the 12th-grade class. That student then allegedly brought the recording to a Narbonne High faculty member with whom the teacher has had an adversarial relationship. The HArts Academy teacher contends the Narbonne teacher began disseminating the recording to others on campus.

“This girl took my moment of weakness and used it against me,” the teacher said of the student. “And then the teacher (at Narbonne) egged (the student) on to send it to her, and then they disseminated it. It’s just cruel.”

The episode is the latest example of how students using their cellphones to take pictures or recordings of what is happening in the classroom can have a profound effect on campus. It also raises questions about what constitutes inappropriate behavior on the part of a teacher in the classroom.

Several weeks ago, a teacher was placed on leave at Da Vinci Science charter school in Hawthorne after a student snapped a photo of a test question that took a jab at crosstown rival Hawthorne High.

Said the prompt: “Little known fact: the early years at Jamestown were characterized by violence, a lack of knowledge and the presence of many women of questionable moral character. A little like modern-day Hawthorne High School.”

The prompt was photographed by a student at Da Vinci, who emailed it to a friend at Hawthorne High, who in turn posted it on Instagram. The photo eventually made its way to officials at the Centinela Valley Union High School District.

Larry Rosen, a psychology professor at Cal State Dominguez Hills, said the incidents are a reminder to teachers — and, really, to everyone — that these days, every human interaction has potential to be public.

“Technology has led us into a conundrum,” said Rosen, a leading scholar on technology devices and their effect on the human psyche. “On the one hand, you get to know everything, everywhere, anytime you want. But the price you pay is your privacy.”

Rosen said he bears this in mind when delivering his lectures, though he says has hasn’t allowed the presence of mobile devices to alter the way he teaches.

“I still swear in class,” he said with a laugh. “But I knew that if I didn’t tame my language, somebody could have complained about me long ago. But I think (swearing) can provide a hook for some students to remember material.”

Of course, college and high school are different environments, and their standards for what constitutes acceptable behavior by teachers differ accordingly.

LAUSD’s code of ethics includes a dozen behaviors for teachers to avoid. Among them:

“Engaging in any behaviors, either directly or indirectly with a student(s) or in the presence of a student(s), that are unprofessional, unethical, illegal, immoral, or exploitative.”

Ellen Morgan, a spokesperson for LAUSD, said that, generally speaking, a violation of the code will trigger an investigation.

“At the outcome of the investigation, he/she will meet with the individual and conference, reprimand, discipline and/or move to recommend dismissal,” Morgan said in an email.

She added that, in situations similar to the one in question — provided no other information surfaces to contradict the action — the employee will often be issued a “notice of unsatisfactory act” for the behavior.

The HArts Academy teacher did point out that the girl who recorded the outburst broke school rules just by having her cellphone on in class. Indeed, LAUSD policy prohibits the use of cellphones during class time.

In any case, the teacher was leading a classroom discussion about race and ethnicity when the confrontation erupted. The teacher said she was trying to make the point that the term “African-American” is, in some respects, a misnomer.

“You’re an American first,” she said, adding that her forebears were Italian, and she doesn’t refer to herself as Italian-American.

The teacher — who worked at Narbonne for many years before switching over to the new school — said the girl repeatedly told her that she was wrong. “I was trying to explain the difference between race and ethnicity, and this girl kept poking the bear,” she said.

“I’ve always felt safe with my students,” said the teacher, who attended Narbonne herself. “That’s why it hurts so much that someone would do this.”

The teacher said she was feeling burdened by two major stressors that day. First, she was in physical pain, and soon after had an appendectomy. Also, HArts has been locked in a bitter fight with Narbonne High over 90-plus students who are reportedly being kept from switching from Narbonne to the new school. The dispute has forced the new school — which enrolls 385 students — to shed four of its 16 teachers. Meanwhile, Narbonne has added three teachers to its roster.

The resulting tension has had the effect of pitting some teachers against each other on the same campus. The teacher in question said she believes this atmosphere of distrust added incentive for teachers at Narbonne to pass the sound clip around.

“These are people who used to be my friends,” she said.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Hawthorne schools pilot use of palm scanners to speed lunch lines

Hawthorne schools pilot use of palm scanners to speed lunch lines

Palm scanner in the cafeteria at Hawthorne Middle School lets students log in as they get food, showing the cashier the students ID and account stutus. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)
Palm scanner in the cafeteria at Hawthorne Middle School lets students log in as they get food, showing the cashier the students ID and account stutus. (Brad Graverson / Staff Photographer)

In the James Bond movies of the 1970s, heroes and villains used palm scanners to gain access to secret rooms.

This futuristic piece of technology has come to the Hawthorne School District, but for a far less glamorous purpose: to boost the number of students who can get through the lunch line on time, thereby reducing the number of students who go through the day hungry.

“We just want to make sure every child has access to our meals,” said Anna Apoian, the district’s food services director. “If they have food in their bellies, they are going to perform better in the afternoon. ”

The project is happening on a trial basis at Hawthorne Middle and Ramona Elemenary schools, where students – once they reach the front of the lunch line – place a hand on a digital reader in the shape of a palm.

Using technology similar to that of a TV remote or Nintendo Wii video game, the device manufactured by Harris School Solutions takes an image of the vein pattern below the skin. This, in turn, calls up information about the student that is pertinent to the cafeteria cashier: a photo of the student, the balance on his or her account and whether the individual should avoid any foods due to allergies.

The devices – currently used only by eighth-graders at Hawthorne Middle and fifth-graders at Ramona – have given some people the heebie-jeebies.

A handful of parents have exempted their children from using them, and one precocious pupil at Hawthorne Middle School refuses to scan his hand because he considers it too “Big Brother. ”

Apoian assures that there is no nefarious information-gathering scheme at play. She takes pains to note that the technology does not store any images of the palm. Rather, it simply connects to a five-digit ID number that students for years have been punching in on their own, thereby calling up all of the same information.

The hope is that the second or two saved by the palm scanner for each student will add up to precious minutes.

At Hawthorne Middle School, cafeteria workers have long been puzzling over how to stretch those precious minutes.

Long slowing the flow of the lunch line there has been the school’s relatively small cafeteria and oddly designed campus, which is bisected by 129th Street, forcing many kids to cross the street at lunchtime.

Recent renovations to the cafeteria have significantly boosted the rate of students served daily, from about half a couple of years ago to the current 65 percent.

But Apoian’s goal is to get the school on equal footing with another middle school in the district, Prairie Vista, where nearly 80 percent of the students are served daily.

“We’re competing with ourselves,” she said.

The school’s principal, Rudy Salas, is all for trying anything that gets kids through the line more quickly.

“We don’t want kids to be thinking about food when they should be listening to a lecture or engaged in a classroom discussion,” he said.

(At Ramona Elementary, the point of the pilot project is to determine whether the scanner does an adequate job of reading small hands.)

So far, Apoian isn’t sold by the palm scanners. But her complaints are technical, not philosophical. After all, her staff uses facial recognition software at the time clocks to eliminate the possibility that one employee can punch in for another and to streamline accounting procedures. The system works like a charm, she says.

But with the palm scanner, the line has been held up too many times because the scanner wasn’t recognizing a hand, compelling students to re-register on the spot, she said. And too many times the hardware has crashed.

“The keypads are faster at this point,” she said. “We just want people to know we are trying everything we can.”

Still, she plans to give the new technology a fair trial during the remaining couple of weeks of the pilot period.

Most students, meanwhile, seem like they could take or leave the palm scanner. Sixth-grader Royian Williams has had trouble getting her lunch on time when she goes through a special lunch line for kids getting paninis.

“It’s a long line – people love the paninis,” she said. “By the time I sit down and start eating, it’s time to leave. ”

As for Big Brother? It doesn’t concern her in the slightest.

“If they want the line to be quicker, they should do it for all the grades,” she said.

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

Students at Palos Verdes Peninsula High Show Their Cybersmarts

Students at Palos Verdes Peninsula High Show Their Cybersmarts

Justin Boisvert, a sophomore at Palos Verdes Peninsula High, is already an expert programmer who has interned for Google.

Nick Entin, a junior, has created an iPhone app that acts as a beacon for skiers trapped in an avalanche.

Senior Andrew Zhang already has a job at the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute near Torrance, where he writes software that helps doctors assess the health of their patients. (Because he is a student, the job pays minimum wage.)

So perhaps it’s no surprise that the computer-science based team on which they and several other Peninsula High students compete ranks among the finest of its kind in the United States. On Thursday, the team learned it is among just a dozen high schools – winnowed from a pool of 400 – that will square off in March for a final jamboree in Washington, D.C.

The game, created by the U.S. military, is called CyberPatriots, and essentially replicates real-life cybersecurity situations faced by computer administrators.

But at Peninsula High in Rolling Hills Estates, the team is just a part of an unusually robust science and technology program.

In October, U.S. News and World Report ranked the school No. 78 on a list of high schools in the United States for best math and science instruction.

Mitzi Cress, the school’s principal, attributes much of the success to one teacher, a Syrian war refugee named Hassan Twiet.

“The creativity he brings to our programs is just unbelievable,” she said. “If circumstances ever caused him to retire … the program would be in deep trouble.”

In addition to coaching the team – named CyberPanther in a nod to the school’s mascot – Twiet teaches two Web production classes, three computer science classes and five engineering courses. He also coaches the school’s robotics team, and is the adviser to four technology-related student clubs.

Knocking on the door

A resident of Anaheim, the 46-year-old Twiet landed his teaching job seven years ago by literally knocking on the door of then-Principal Kelly Johnson.

“I said, `I have something good to offer, on one condition: I want my kids to go here,”‘ Twiet remembers. “He looked me in the eye and says, `What do you have to offer?’ and I said: `computer (knowledge).”‘

Johnson took Twiet’s phone number, investigated his credentials and called him back to offer him two computer-science courses. He also allowed Twiet’s children to attend Peninsula High. Two have since graduated and now work as engineers; the other two aren’t yet in high school.

Twiet fled to the United States in 1982, after the infamous Hama massacre, in which up to 40,000 Syrians – and 17 members of his extended family – were killed by the government to quash a revolt by Sunni Muslims.

“There was airplane bombardment, tanks, you name it,” he said. “The city was total ruins.”

Twiet remembers fleeing on foot with his brother and father.

“My father and brother and I ended up in three different countries: my father in Saudi Arabia, my brother in Lebanon and I in the United States.”

Twiet was 17 years old and did not speak a word of English. After finishing high school at Cerritos High School, he attended Golden West College and then California State University, Fullerton, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in both math and computer science and a master of science degree in engineering.

A SMERT acronym

All schools love acronyms, and Peninsula High is no exception. The school prides itself on having come up with a science- and technology-based acronym long before schools across the nation started using the ubiquitous STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Peninsula’s beloved acronym tends to inspire gentle teasing: SMERT, which is short for science, math, engineering, robotics and technology. (Is it “smart” misspelled? Cousin to the Smurf?)

Twiet takes pains to make his SMERT classes applicable to the real world. For instance, while most high schools enlist a tech company to build and maintain their websites, Peninsula High assigns this task to Twiet’s Web-design students.

“Every bit of our website is kid-generated,” Cress said.

One of the site’s more sophisticated features is a “homework calculator.” To use it, students need only enter the classes they are thinking of taking, and they can see how many hours of weekly homework they’d be facing.

Twiet’s advanced computer science students are so advanced they’ve already completed the official Advanced Placement computer-science class. Their project for this semester is ambitious: to create a comprehensive database using info from Peninsula High students allowing administrators to better pinpoint which students are struggling in which areas.

“The whole purpose is, what’s the benefit for the school, and the students and their families and the community,” he said. “We’re looking at 99 percent (of Peninsula’s students) going to college; we’d like it to be 100 percent. Where is that 1 percent?”

Twiet acknowledges that his classes aren’t very diverse. About 95 percent of the students are male, the vast majority of them Asian.

But the captain of the CyberPanther team is a girl named Miolani Grenier.

“I have brothers, so I’m kind of used to it,” she said.

As for the CyberPanther team, in late March six team members will be treated to a trip to Maryland, with the nonprofit Air Force Association, the competition sponsor, covering all costs, including several nights at a nice hotel. For some of the students, it will be a familiar trip: the team also made it this far last year, placing seventh.

It’s safe to say the teammates will be too focused on defending virtual networks from virtual cyberthreats to enjoy many amenities.

Follow Rob Kuznia on Twitter at

Los Angeles News Group / Daily Breeze

12-year-old Manhattan Beach boy creates anti-Justin Bieber app

Thomas Suarez loves to hate Justin Bieber, and hopes you do, too.

Earlier this year, the 12-year-old Manhattan Beach resident created an iPhone app called Bustin Jieber, in which the player tries to slap down — with two thumbs — the carefully coiffed head of the teenage heartthrob as it pops up, a la the game Whac-A-Mole.

Impressive (and amusing) as it is, the game represents just a fraction of Suarez’s prodigious technological know-how, which greatly exceeds that of his parents.

On Saturday, Thomas will address the startling gap of tech knowledge separating many young people from their elders as a speaker at an education conference in Manhattan Beach.

Thomas Suarez is a 12-year-old Manhattan Beach kid who wrote an iPhone application called "Bustin Jieber" which is a game like whack-a-mole with a Justin Bieber face on it. Photo by Brad Graverson 10-20-11

Modeled after the popular and cerebral TED Talks, the event, officially called TEDx Manhattan Beach, will feature 20 speakers from across California and beyond, all focused on the future of education. To borrow a phrase from Apple, the event promises to be a celebration of ideas that come from people who “think different.”

For instance, Internet entrepreneur Jon Bischke will discuss a concept he refers to as a “reputation graph,” in which the trail any given person leaves online will be of increasing importance, perhaps giving way to the decreasing importance of the traditional resume.

Stanford assistant professor Paulo Blikstein will hold court on how to make wood shop relevant to not only the 21st century, but the 22nd.

Filmmaker Barry Ptolemy, who worked closely with Steven Spielberg on “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and is widely referred to as a futurist, will discuss what schools may look like 20 and 30 years out. Ptolemy also worked on a movie about the thinker Ray Kurzweil, who has hypothesized that by 2029 computers will be so advanced that their thinking will be indistinguishable from that of humans.

“The overall theme is how do we make education better, how do we deliver better education to the next generation?” said the event’s organizer, John Marston. “If your grandparents went to a school today, they’d know exactly what it was: It would look similar to a school 100 years ago. Then, at the same time, they might not know about cellphones, iPads and Facebook. The world is not the same.”

The implication here is that schools as a whole are still in the 20th century, coughing in the dust of the digital revolution.

As for Thomas, he has his own idea on how schools can catch up: Allow young tech experts more opportunities to share their knowledge with peers and adults alike. If the concept of a small kid standing at the head of a class filled with adults sounds a little fantastical, it’s actually not so different from what Thomas is already doing.

This year, Thomas – who has two younger brothers, but no older siblings – launched an app club at his middle school, where he often stands in front of a class of 15 or 20 of his peers over the lunch hour and gives lessons on some of the ins and outs of creating an app. (His parents asked that the name of his school not be divulged, out of concern for his privacy.)

Thomas said he enjoys teaching.

“It’s just fun to see people who don’t get something at first, and then you explain it to them and they say, `Ohhhh, I get it now,”‘ he said.

The students aren’t just trying to make funny apps – and a little money – for themselves. They’re also working together on an application for their own school, which this year started using iPads in its classrooms.

At times, Thomas’ acumen has seemed almost preternatural.

His father, Ralph Suarez, remembers when the family purchased a Mac Mini for Thomas when he was 8.

The adults couldn’t figure out how to activate the Wi-Fi, and figured the computer must not have been equipped with the right router. Ralph walked past Thomas sitting at the computer and was surprised to see him on the Internet – he’d activated the Wi-Fi himself.

“I said, `How did you know how to do it?”‘ said Suarez, 53, a management analyst at Los Angeles International Airport. “He said, `I heard the guy (at the Apple store) talking about it.”‘

In fact, much of Thomas’ education happened at the Apple store. The boy was a frequent student of the company’s training service, widely known as “one to one,” in which employees teach users how to better navigate the hardware and software.

With the help of a manual, Thomas created his first app before he even owned an iPod. (He still doesn’t own an iPhone.) Called Earth Fortune, the free app is a kind of virtual fortuneteller in which the user pushes the planet, causing it to change colors – blue might mean the user had a tranquil day – and deliver a short message.

Since releasing the Bustin Jieber app, Thomas has created a small company called CarrotCorp. (Because he is not 18, his father is listed as the company’s owner.)

A branding theme seems to be emerging with his games. Others include Bustin Howie and Bustin Piers, dedicated to whapping down the floating faces of Howie Mandel and Piers Morgan, the rivaling hosts on “America’s Got Talent.”

Thomas released the 99-cent Bustin Jieber app just before last year’s holiday season.

A few days after Christmas, he was pleasantly surprised to see that he’d made 700 sales. Since then, he has made about 600 more, at a total profit of about $1,000. Thomas has purchased an Xbox with his earnings, but Ralph said in many ways he’s glad that the venture hasn’t brought home serious money.

“I like that he’s doing it more to have fun and to learn, and share with his friends,” he said. “In anything, it’s probably best if you do it for the love of the thing.”


TEDx Manhattan Beach will be from 9:15 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at Manhattan Beach Middle School, 1501 Redondo Ave. Tickets are $100 but are nearly sold out. The event will be streamed live on its website at