Corona del Mar (CdM) High School is reacting to a lawsuit filed by the family of a student who was expelled in a recent cheating scandal. Filed on May 9, the lawsuit alleges that school officials illegally threatened and intimidated the student into making coerced statements.
Eleven students were forced into signing expulsion agreements in January prohibiting their return to CdM High this year. By signing the agreements, the students waived their right to appeal the expulsion, according to the school district.
The family alleges the student’s agreement was obtained under duress after illegally harassing and intimidating the student into agreeing to be expelled.
According to the lawsuit, the school’s resource officer pulled the junior from class into a closet-sized supply room and demanded the student’s cellphone and password. The officer proceeded to interrogate the student over his involvement with a local tutor. The tutor is accused of providing students with access to school computers through unlawfully obtained logins and passwords. The access was allegedly used to alter grades and obtain exams.
The student alleges in the lawsuit that he was denied his parents’ presence during questioning. He further alleges that he was denied adequate medication for attention deficit disorder, and food and water over a period of several hours.
Attorneys for Newport-Mesa Unified School District refuted the family's claims that district officials violated the student's rights.
Was This a Kidnapping? (California Penal Code Section 207)
Did the resource officer commit a crime? On one hand, keeping a person confined against his will is a tort (a civil wrong against a person) of false imprisonment. However, false imprisonment is not a crime unless it meets the definition of kidnapping.
Kidnapping in California is defined under Penal Code Section 207 as “forcibly, or by any other means of instilling fear, steals or takes, or holds, detains, or arrests any person in this state, and carries the person into another country, state, or county, or into another part of the same county.”
The student never left the school, so it is not likely that a kidnapping occurred. Moreover, unless the student was threatened with the immediate prospect of a crime leading to serious bodily injury or death, he was not criminally threatened pursuant to Penal Code section 422.
Did Authorities Deny the Student His Rights by Forcing Him to Admit to Cheating?
In this case, the student claims he requested his parents’ presence while being questioned but was denied. However, California Education Code, beginning with Section 48900, permits school districts to set their own policies when it comes to informing parents during student disciplinary actions (Education Code section 48914).
What is troublesome is that this student was not just being compelled to answer whether he cheated, but perhaps was being coerced into admitting he committed a crime. Like anyone else, he maintained a Fifth Amendment constitutional right to remain silent, and should have invoked this right.
Knowingly receiving stolen school property or private property is grounds for expulsion pursuant to California Education Code section 48900. For the purposes of this code, “school property” includes electronic files and databases.
More importantly, this student may have implicated himself under Penal Code section 502(c), California’s anti-computer hacking law. Under this law, it is a crime to knowingly access and without permission a computer for the purposes of altering, damaging, deleting, destroying, using, copying or obtaining any data.
You violate this law if you either:
- Devise or execute a scheme to defraud, deceive or extort; or
- Wrongfully control or obtain money, property or data.
Generally, a conviction under Penal Code section 502(c) is punishable as either a misdemeanor or a felony, making it a California “wobbler” offense. If convicted of a misdemeanor violation of computer hacking, you face as much as one year in jail, a $5,000 fine, or both. If you are convicted of a felony, you could be sentenced to as much as three years in jail, ordered to pay a maximum $10,000 fine, or both.
Frivolous Lawsuit or Legitimate Complaint?
It is alleged that after several hours of questioning, the student wrote a statement for school officials, providing information about his involvement in the cheating.
In the written statement, the student outlined his involvement in the cheating, which included requesting that the tutor boost his grades by 1% to 3%.
However, the student later retracted his written statements, instead saying that the tutor changed the grades without his knowledge. When the student became angry and asked him to change them back, the tutor made him vow not to disclose what was going on.
It may appear that the student has a legitimate grievance. However, it is hard to ignore the fact that he changed his story and, six months later, filed suit complaining denial of food, water and medication. This seems a little far-fetched.
Moreover, the suit appears to be connected with a denial of a court request that the student be allowed to attend the prom. Under the terms of the stipulated expulsion agreement, the student is forbidden from attending extracurricular or school activities.
What Do We Learn From This Case?
School and law enforcement authorities may question a student absent parental consent, but this does not mean the student must answer, either orally or in writing.
Invoking a Fifth Amendment right to remain silent must be expressly communicated. Asking for a parent’s presence doesn't trigger this right, so students should be polite but clear if they intend to refuse to answer questions. This is particularly true if police officers suspect the student of criminal activity.
It is important that you exercise your right to remain silent and speak to an attorney before answering any questions that may incriminate you.
Wallin & Klarich Can Help Protect Your Constitutional Rights
If you or someone you love has been the victim of a forced confession to a crime, you should speak with one of our experienced criminal defense attorneys at Wallin & Klarich right away.
At Wallin & Klarich, our attorneys have over 30 years of experience successfully representing our clients who have been denied their basic constitutional rights.
Wallin & Klarich has offices conveniently located in Los Angeles, Sherman Oaks, Torrance, Tustin, San Diego, Riverside, San Bernardino, Ventura, West Covina and Victorville. Our priority is to help you receive the best possible outcome in your case.
Call us today at (888) 280-6839 for a free telephone consultation. We will get through this together.