Suspect Sought for Helping Students Hack School System, Change Grades

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By Lauren Lamm | Special to the Indy

An Irvine tutor is wanted for questioning by Newport Beach police in connection with helping a group of Corona del Mar High School students hack into their school’s computer system to change grades and access tests, authorities announced Thursday.

Timothy Lance Lai, 28, of Irvine, is suspected of assisting a group of students in “compromising school computers and manipulating grades,” Newport Beach Police Department Sergeant Mark Hamilton said.

Corona del Mar High School administration received news about “an issue regarding student misconduct with grades” Tuesday, Newport Mesa Unified School District spokeswoman Laura Boss said in a statement on Wednesday. An email was also sent out to parents and teachers Wednesday at 7:22 p.m.

“We are shocked and disappointed by the unethical and irresponsible behavior exhibited by the involved students,” said Boss.

Timothy Lance Lai — Photo courtesy Newport Beach Police Department
Timothy Lance Lai
— Photo courtesy Newport Beach Police Department

Police currently do not know Lai’s whereabouts.

Lai has numerous traffic violations over the past three years, according to Orange County Superior Court records.

Between March 2010 and August 2013, Lai has been ticketed eight times for a variety of violations: Driving across, over or upon divided highways, failing to stop at a red or stop at limit line or crosswalk, failure to obey traffic control sign, driving while driver’s license is suspended or revoked, driving while using a wireless telephone, mandatory use of seatbelts required and more, according to court records.

Lai, a private tutor, allegedly supplied about a dozen students with a hacking device and instruction on how to use it, Boss said. He is not a district employee, she emphasized.

Authorities believe they used a tool called a keylogger. It’s a small piece of equipment that gets plugged into the back of the computer and attached to the keyboard cord.

“Every key stroke someone makes on that computer is being logged,” Boss said.

“It has one purpose,” she added, and that is to take other people’s information.

The small device is left in place for a week or two, she continued, out of sight from the teacher.

The students had to physically attached it to the computer, she noted, it’s not something that they could have done remotely.

Officials aren’t sure when it all started.

“At this point in time we don’t know how far it goes back,” Boss said.

Some have stipulated that it may have been happening as far back as last year, she added.

“We don’t know the extent of it yet,” she said. “It will take some time to research… It will require a lot of time.”

When the administration became aware of the issues going on with potential concern to grades they started interviewing certain individuals, Boss explained.

Although officials haven’t been able to confirm whether or not the students involved changed just their own grades or others as well, the early investigation indicates that there were numerous grade changes, Boss said.

The campus is grades seven through 12 and the students involved range in grade level, she added.

The students violated CdM’s academic honor code and are subject to face disciplinary action from the school and criminal charges. The NBPD is investigating the incident.

“ I think that they (the students) definitely deserve consequences for their actions,” said junior Janelle Nguyen, 16.

The students involved should be “ashamed of their behavior,” Boss wrote on behalf of the district.

Around 3 p.m. Tuesday, an all staff meeting was called over the school announcements and affirmed that no previous commitments could be honored.

“I knew something was really wrong once I heard her say that all other activities can be postponed because this was urgent,” said junior Chance Sneary, 17, who was in Laura Mayberry’s sixth period U.S. History course at the time of the announcement.

Passwords for all staff members were reset on Wednesday morning, Boss said, and teachers will likely review their own security measures.

School officials are in discussions regarding larger, system-wide procedures, Boss said, but the district will have to look closely at any action before implementing them.

According to Boss, there is no reason to believe that CdM staff could have been involved in the incident.

“CdM teachers expressed concern and sadness that these students would take advantage of them and violate their trust,” she wrote in the statement.

Students like Sneary are also disappointed by the behavior of their fellow classmates.

“I think this is a great example of how parents and teachers (pressure) students too much to take hard classes so that they can get into a good college,” he said. “People who are really busy and [are lacking] time become lazy and find shortcuts.”

Junior Riley Starr, 16, also commented on the pressure students face.

“I think it’s terrible how kids are going against their morals and values and ruining their reputation just for a grade. It’s sad how much pressure they feel,” Starr said.

Honesty and integrity are cornerstones of the quality educational program at CdM, Boss noted.

“One of the saddest things about something like this is that it involves a group of students that made a conscious choice to sidestep the academic rigor at this school,” she said. “To have the other (major portion) of the student population be painted with the same brush is disheartening.”

This does not reflect the rest of the student population and should not distract form the hard work the students, teachers and staff have done.

“Despite the fact that this was done and the district and school are shocked and saddened by the choices the students have made,” Boss said, “we want to reiterate that it should not diminish the well deserved reputation of excellence that Corona del Mar has received over the past 50 years.”

 Anyone with information on Lai’s location is asked to call Detective David Syvock at (949) 644-3771 or Detective Sergeant Doug Jones at (949) 644-3775.

Lauren Lamm is a junior at Corona del Mar High School and works as a photo editor and writer for the school’s Trident Magazine.

Sara Hall contributed to this story.

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