The tutor who hacked into a Corona del Mar High School teacher’s computer and changed grades for a group of CdM students during the 2012 to 2013 school year was sentenced this week to one year in jail and five years of formal probation.
Timothy Lance Lai, 29, pleaded guilty to a court offer to 20 felony counts of computer access and fraud and one felony count of second degree commercial burglary, according to a press release from the Orange County District Attorney.
Lai’s conduct and the following scandal harmed both the parents and students who had hired him, said CdMHS principal Kathy Scott in an impact statement to the court.
“Lives were shaken when they found out the person they trusted to help their student to improve academically, undermined them and betrayed them by his leadership role in the cheating scandal,” she said.
The entire community was harmed by the incident, Scott continued. The incident created a “newsworthy controversy” that brought negative attention to CdM.
“The entire community was harmed by the media attention and the disruption that occurred as a result of the cheating scandal,” she said. “This damaged the academic integrity of CDM and devalued the perception of the CDM diploma.”
Lai was a private tutor for students who attended CdMHS.
As the OCDA explains, Lai broke into the high school in early 2013 and inserted a USB device into a teacher’s computer. The device recorded the teacher’s keystrokes, allowing Lai to learn login information and gain access to the school’s network.
Between Jan. 25, 2013, and June 14, 2013, he changed the grades of students on 19 separate occasions.
On June 14, 2013, one of the teachers discovered that grades for students had been changed and contacted school administrators. Later that year, another USB device was discovered on a third teacher’s computer.
He fled the country once the police investigation began, but was later arrested when he returned to the U.S. Newport Beach Police Department took Lai into custody as he arrived at Los Angeles International Airport on Oct. 6, 2014.
In January 2014, after hours of deliberation and two closed session meetings, the Newport-Mesa Unified School District board of education voted to expel 11 students involved in the computer-hacking cheating scandal.
The punishment for the CdMHS students, recommended by school and district administrators, is stipulated expulsion, which would remove the students from the CdM campus, but allow them to transfer to another district school.
According then-president of the board Karen Yelsey, six of the students had already withdrawn from the district.
“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,” Yelsey said, after she read out the vote and a statement for the record during the meeting last year. “The board’s action also reflects our responsibility pursuant to Education Code to provide continued academic access for all students.”
Judy Franco, Katrina Foley and Dana Black voted against the action for four of the students. Black was the sole opposing vote on one other student. The board unanimously voted for expulsion for the other six.
The board weighed each case “on an individual basis and in careful detail,” Yelsey said. They came to different conclusions, reflecting the individual circumstances as they each saw them, she added.
Senior Deputy District Attorney Brock Zimmon of the Special Prosecutions Unit prosecuted this case.