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College cheating scheme exploited rules for disabled students, advocates say

March 14, 2019

GREENWICH — When the FBI released documents incriminating 50 people in a college admissions cheating scandal, advocates for special-needs students were horrified at how families had abused a special testing accommodation meant to help students with disabilities.

At least 10 of the 32 indicted parents, including Greenwich lawyer Gordon Caplan and actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin, 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 special education attorney Piper Paul.

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 in bribes.

The federal affidavit explains how the scheme worked. 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.

After denying the request twice, the ACT ultimately granted Caplan’s daughter extended time on the exam at the request of law enforcement in November. In December, Caplan and his daughter flew to California, where she took the ACT at the West Hollywood Test Center, and a bribed proctor fixed some of her answers to improve her score. 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 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?” special education attorney Michael Gilberg said.

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 special-needs children.

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

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

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

Lai, a mother of a son with special needs, advises children with an Individualized Education Plan, which levels the playing field for students with disabilities, to begin using the accommodations well before they reach the age of taking college-entrance exams.

Then the College Board is less likely to call into question the extra supports, she said.

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 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 — or setting up tests in private rooms in local facilities.

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. Paul’s appeals include statements from doctors and psychologists, and letters from students describing living with their disability.

Sometimes she deals with a family who wants to game the system, Paul said, but those calls are few and far between.

The families indicted in the FBI investigation who got extra time for their child exploited a necessary system for their own gain, Paul said.

“It’s disgraceful,” she said.

jo.kroeker@hearstmediact.com