Advocates: Cheating scheme exploited rules for disabled students
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.
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.
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.
Harkness Tower on the campus of Yale University in New Haven.