Fall­out be­gins

Ad­vo­cates: Cheat­ing scheme ex­ploited rules for dis­abled stu­dents

The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT) - - FRONT PAGE - By Jo Kroeker

When the FBI re­leased doc­u­ments in­crim­i­nat­ing 50 peo­ple in a col­lege ad­mis­sions cheat­ing scan­dal, ad­vo­cates for spe­cial-needs stu­dents were hor­ri­fied at how the ac­cused ex­ploited a test­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion meant to help stu­dents with dis­abil­i­ties, and wor­ried that their ac­tions would threaten it in the fu­ture.

At least 10 of the 32 in­dicted par­ents, in­clud­ing Green­wich lawyer Gor­don Ca­plan and ac­tress Felic­ity Huff­man, al­legedly con­spired to use bribery and other forms of fraud to boost their chil­dren’s scores on col­lege en­trance ex­ams, ac­cord­ing to fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors.

“It is so un­con­scionable what hap­pened, be­cause there are many stu­dents who do have dis­abil­i­ties that need these ac­com­mo­da­tions,” said West­port-based at­tor­ney Piper Paul.

The rich and pow­er­ful peo­ple who took ad­van­tage of the sys­tem will make se­cur­ing ac­com­mo­da­tions harder for peo­ple who truly have dis­abil­i­ties,

at­tor­ney Michael Gil­berg said.

Both Gil­berg and Paul spe­cial­ize in spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion law.

“Kids who need ac­tual ac­com­mo­da­tions are go­ing to be more closely scru­ti­nized,” Gil­berg said. “This hurts peo­ple in the dis­abil­ity com­mu­nity … and cre­ates dis­trust in the ac­com­mo­da­tions process.”

Wil­liam “Rick” Singer, a col­lege ad­mis­sions con­sul­tant in New­port Beach, Calif., pleaded guilty Tues­day to rack­e­teer­ing and other charges for run­ning the scheme, which racked up $25 mil­lion to ex­ploit the test­ing ac­com­mo­da­tion — which al­lows stu­dents with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties ex­tra time to take the SAT and ACT col­lenge en­try tests, ac­cord­ing to the fed­eral af­fi­davit.

Green­wich’s Ca­plan, an at­tor­ney and the co-chair­man of a New York in­ter­na­tional law firm, paid for an eval­u­a­tion by a Cal­i­for­nia psy­chol­o­gist who said his daugh­ter has learn­ing dif­fer­ences and qual­i­fied for ex­tra time to take her col­lege en­trance ex­ams, ac­cord­ing to a se­ries of wire tap­pings from June to De­cem­ber 2018. In De­cem­ber, Ca­plan and his daugh­ter flew to Cal­i­for­nia, where she took the ACT at the West Hol­ly­wood Test Cen­ter. Through Singer, Ca­plan bribed a proc­tor to fix some of his daugh­ter’s an­swers to im­prove her score, ac­cord­ing to the af­fi­davit. The fam­ily paid out $75,000 for the bribes, pros­e­cu­tors said.

Many of the other fam­i­lies charged in the case used a sim­i­lar strat­egy of get­ting spe­cial sup­ports their chil­dren were not el­i­gi­ble for, such as giv­ing them ex­tra time or al­low­ing them to take the tests alone un­der the su­per­vi­sion of a pri­vate proc­tor. Pros­e­cu­tors say this is when the cheat­ing on the tests oc­curred.

Now, spe­cial ed­u­ca­tion ad­vo­cates worry about whether the Col­lege Board, which runs the SAT, and ACT Inc. will con­tinue to al­low test-tak­ing ac­com­mo­da­tions for stu­dents with learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties.

“How do you pro­tect the sys­tem while also en­sur­ing rights of chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties?” Gil­berg asked.

Test­ing ac­com­mo­da­tions for chil­dren with dis­abil­i­ties are a cru­cial el­e­ment to re­ceiv­ing a free and ap­pro­pri­ate ed­u­ca­tion in the pub­lic-school sys­tem, said Chris­tine Lai, cofounder of the Green­wich-based Spe­cial Ed­u­ca­tion Le­gal Fund, which em­pow­ers par­ents to ad­vo­cate for their spe­cial­needs chil­dren.

“It’s hor­rific,” Lai said. “It’s dif­fi­cult to get a (time) ex­ten­sion as it is, even when le­git­i­mate. To have it called into ques­tion looks ter­ri­ble for the whole com­mu­nity.”

Every year, school dis­tricts ap­ply to the Col­lege Board for test­ing ac­com­mo­da­tions for stu­dents. The board con­ducts an in­de­pen­dent anal­y­sis, ap­prov­ing some re­quests and deny­ing oth­ers.

Com­mon re­quests in­clude set­ting up tests in pri­vate rooms in lo­cal fa­cil­i­ties and get­ting ad­di­tional time — whether it ex­tends the test­ing ses­sion over one day, sev­eral days or three weeks, or stops the clock and restarts when the stu­dent is ready.

Stu­dents with nar­colepsy, for ex­am­ple, need to stop and start the clock, or spread 45-minute pe­riod blocks over three weeks to per­form to their abil­i­ties, Paul said.

The test­ing agency will al­ways look for a his­tory of a stu­dent’s dis­abil­ity, Paul said, but prior no­tice of a dis­abil­ity is not a le­gal re­quire­ment to dis­pense ex­tra sup­port.

And when the Col­lege Board de­nies sup­ports, at­tor­neys can ap­peal the de­ci­sion.

The fam­i­lies in­dicted in the FBI in­ves­ti­ga­tion ex­ploited a nec­es­sary sys­tem for their own gain, Paul said.

“It’s dis­grace­ful,” she said.

Julie Ja­cob­son / As­so­ci­ated Press

Gor­don Ca­plan, of Green­wich, cen­ter, walks out of fed­eral court in New York City on Tues­day. Fifty peo­ple, in­clud­ing Hol­ly­wood stars Felic­ity Huff­man and Lori Lough­lin, were charged in an ad­mis­sions bribery scheme.

David McNew / AFP/Getty Im­ages

Huff­man in­side the fed­eral court­house in Los An­ge­les on Tues­day. The “Des­per­ate Housewives” star and 49 oth­ers were ac­cused of cheat­ing to get their chil­dren into elite schools such as Yale, Ge­orge­town and Stan­ford uni­ver­si­ties.

Beth Harpaz / As­so­ci­ated Press file photo

Hark­ness Tower on the cam­pus of Yale Univer­sity in New Haven.

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