June 19, 2008 -- A cyber-quest to improve grades resulted in a 17-page complaint and 69 felony counts against two California high school seniors — probably not the type of paperwork that'll get them into the Ivy League.
The scariest number of all is probably 38 — the number of years alleged cyber-hacker Omar Shahid Khan, 18, could face behind bars if convicted on all 69 charges he faces tied to alleged break-ins at Tesoro High School in Las Flores, Calif. His friend, Tanvir Singh, also 18, could face up to three years for four felony counts.
Their motive, according to prosecutors? To bulk up academic transcripts to make themselves more appealing to college admissions offices.
In April, Khan requested a copy of his official transcript to appeal a decision by the University of California to deny him admission. Prosecutors say that in the middle of that very night, he made one of many attempts to alter his grades by breaking into school offices and hacking into online gradebooks, backdating the date and time stamp of the grade changes to cover up the crime.
The criminal investigation began after Khan later requested a transcript for the second time and school officials noticed a disparity between his recorded grades and his performance in class.
The series of felony counts laid out in the criminal complaint by Orange County prosecutors include burglary, identity theft and receiving stolen property. Khan was arrested Tuesday and released after a $50,000 bond was posted. He was expected in court today. Singh turned himself in on his three charges and was arraigned in court Wednesday.
A Series of Break-Ins
Prosecutors allege that Khan began breaking into school offices in January, posing at various times as teachers and administrators to access the school's school computer network.
Between January and May, Khan allegedly altered grades in online school district gradebooks for himself and several other students. Between April 17 and May 20, prosecutors say, Khan boosted his own grades — from Cs and Ds to As and Bs — in more than 10 different courses and pilfered several master tests for duplication.
The complaint also details the involvement of Singh, who allegedly sent a text message to Khan on May 19 suggesting they break into school to access an English test scheduled for the following day that he had not studied for. "come haha I need someone with balls there with me," Singh wrote to Khan, according to prosecutors. "I have a huge test on a book tomorrow I haven't read, and its not on spark notes." Sparknotes is a study aide popular with high school and college students cramming for tests.
Foiled by School Custodian
Khan, who prosecutors say had already been successful entering school offices to access tests and alter grades, acknowledged that the effort would be extra risky because some classmates had performed a senior prank the night before. The students agreed to the plan that night, and attempted to steal the English exam, but were scared off by a night custodian.
Khan, acting alone, went on to steal several more tests during a break-in the following night, May 20, prosecutors allege, and the tests were forwarded by e-mail to several other students.
Prosecutors said the two teens had to break into a guidance office, the registrar's office and the assistant principal's office in order to access the school's faculty and staff online computer network. Khan also allegedly attempted to install software that would allow them to access the information remotely.
In an interview with ABC News, Carol Lavacot, Khan's attorney, described her client as a nice teenager from a closeknit family. There is a lot more to the story, she said, with several other students involved in what she called a cheating "endemic" in California driven by unreasonable achievement expectations and pressure to get into good universities.
"Kids going around getting tests and cheating, it's almost the rule now rather than the exception," Lavacot said. "I think we're going to find out when this is over that this is a big problem."
Lavacot was surprised by the number of felony charges and said she did not understand why Kahn was singled out, arrested and held for 10 hours at the Orange County Detention Center. "He's going to have a difficult time getting into any university now," Lavacot said, adding that she will work with the school district to try to get Kahn his diploma.
Marlin Stapleton, Singh's attorney, told reporters outside court Wednesday that the seniors may have made some bad decisions, but the severity of the possible punishment is too extreme.
"Each time they access that computer, it seems like a new charge and a new crime," Stapleton said. "Not to say that's not wrong, but we still have to remember that these are kids."
Tesoro High School, which has 2,800 students and sits in the wealthy area of southern Orange County that inspired the reality television show "Real Housewives of Orange County," ranks among the best public schools in the nation. The rest of the senior class graduated Wednesday night, the celebration marred by the high-profile scandal.
"It's disappointing that this type of activity will grab headlines," Tesoro High School principal Daniel Burch told a reporter Wednesday, "when the focus should be on the students graduating today and their accomplishments."