Fifty Berkeley High students caught in attendance fraud

Berkeley High School: center of a student-orchestrated attendance scam. Photo: Lance Knobel

Update 7:00 p.m. Berkeley High principal Pasquale Scuderi has replied by email to Berkeleyside to say that 32 suspensions have been issued so far and two students are being considered for expulsion. “The remaining students appeared to be minimally and peripherally involved and alternative forms of consequences are being considered for those students,” he wrote.

Scuderi wrote that the attendance irregularities were discovered in late December and changes were found dating back to October. The next 8-10 weeks were spent following the paper trails and “working with district staff to locate the computers, passwords, and patterns that allowed us to locate and identify those students involved”.

According to Scuderi, there is no evidence “at this time” that any component of PowerSchool (which is used for both attendance and grades), other than the attendance portal was accessed.

Once the irregularities were discovered, Scuderi wrote, the average daily attendance figures that the school releases were corrected. “We are pleased that despite this incident attendance appears to be on the rise at BHS,” he wrote.

“With a year-end audit pending, had our staff not discovered and addressed the issue and these issues then been discovered during an external attendance audit that may have cost the school tens of thousands of dollars on top of the numerous administrative hours that were already diverted from other more important instructional concerns to investigate,” he wrote.

Original story: Berkeley High administrators have uncovered systematic attendance fraud by a number of students, who have been suspended and may possibly be expelled. Four students are believed to have instigated the scam which involved, in some cases, selling absence clearances to around 50 students.

In an email to the BHS community last night, Berkeley High principal Pasquale Scuderi wrote that under new Dean of Attendance, Daniel Roose, attendance data is being “reviewed far more consistently and in greater depth than it has at Berkeley High School in recent memory”. Through that analysis, staff discovered that “several student accounts… appeared to have had inappropriate or unauthorized changes to their attendance records.”

Further investigation revealed that at least four students had obtained a staff member’s password to the database, PowerSchool. But the fraud didn’t stop there, according to Scuderi.

“As the investigation widened we had reasonable suspicion that approximately 50 students had unauthorized adjustments made to their records,” he wrote. “The degree of involvement ranged from what we now know was a few students literally selling the clearance of absences to those who may have accepted having a few absences or tardies cleared by a friend or acquaintance who gained access.”

Scuderi made a point in the email to the number of students involved represents roughly 1% of the school’s student population. “It … still is a vastly unacceptable number of kids who made regrettable decisions,” he wrote.

Scuderi said that “suspensions have been issued in most cases and a few students will be put up for expulsion”.

These actions have apparently attracted some criticism. “Some have questioned our use of suspension in this matter,” Scuderi wrote, “yet we see this altering of teacher and school record keeping as a level of dishonesty that violates our community agreements and expectations of our kids. When one violates our agreements and fails to meet our expectations to this extent we feel justified in issuing a consequence that temporarily revokes the privilege of that student being a part of the school community.

“Time off during a suspension certainly makes staying current in your classes more difficult and inconvenient, but we are convinced that it can be done. Students may have to work harder to stay in contact with teachers or friends in their classes to stay current during the suspension, and this is perhaps one of the chief lessons that we hope students involved will take away; namely, that when you make bad decisions in life they often yield inconvenient or difficult results and subsequently make it harder to meet obligations and responsibilities that you still have to meet.”

He further points out that in many non-school settings, the consequences would be profound: “Both the Education Code and the California Penal Code speak to this issue as an act of fraud and I hope that in the conversations that families have with students who were involved they come to a realization that were similar acts to be carried out on a job somewhere in the future, not only would dismissal be probable, but that those acts could also become part of a permanent record that could impact their ability to find quality employment for years to come and have a host of other negative consequences.”

In the same email, Scuderi announced that Berkeley High’s average daily attendance numbers for September through March had improved year-on-year from 92.43% of students to 93.98%. The administration has made improved attendance a major policy initiative, including the addition of a Dean of Attendance, Daniel Roose, to the staff.

Scuderi’s office today said the principal would not provide further comment on the incident at this time.

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  • Anonymous

    Anybody care to wager whether it was Billy Keys’ username and password being used?

  • As much as they say the kids today are tech savvy, it’s clear these four still haven’t grasped the concept of audit trails.

  • The Sharkey

    Is this kind of fraud really surprising given that the head of security for the school has recently been arrested for identity fraud?

    Set a bad example, and the kids will follow it.

  • Rachel A.

    I am really pleased to hear Principal Scuderi’s response to criticism about the suspensions; as a BUSD parent of elementary school kids I want to know that there are clear expectations in our schools and consequences for poor choices.

  • Guest

    I am surprised that Scuderi and/or the writer of this story did not use the word ‘cheating’. The students involved in this scam were cheating.

    I like the wording of Scuderi’s letter but, in a way, I find it a trifle indirect, as if he was worried about labeling this behavior for what it was:  cheating. Or dishonest. It’s not just about there being negative consequences to poor choices, it is about there being very direct consequences to deliberately engaging in cheating, dishonest behavior.

    I can’t believe Scuderi felt any need whatsoever to justify his decision to suspend some students. If there are no consequences to dishonest, deceitful scheming, the school system would be cheating the students involved in this dishonest scam. Schools and parents and communities have duties to children and one such duty, surely, is to teach children that bad behavior has consequences.

    A suspension is a mild response.

    I am wondering why the Berkeley High School principal seems to feel so defensive about doing what should be perfectly normal behavior:  delivering negative consequences to student who engage in dishonest, negative behavior.

    Duh. Giving them suspensions is a no brainer. Sure he has to say something in his letter to the school community but I wish he had not come across as quite so defensive.

  • Anonymous

    Something like this could easily be a felony for adults, suspension is pretty lenient.

  • bueller. bueller. bueller. bueller

  • bgal4

    Reducing suspensions and expulsions has been the district priority since the mid-1990s when the Diversity Project presented a report to the school board.

    It is entirely common in Berkeley to apologize for disciplining young people and to use terminology that minimizes any negative connotations.

    The situation was so upside down for so long that the notion of supervising high school students in the park at lunch was not embraced until a few years ago, and was only accomplished because of  armed robberies in the park increased.

    For years assaults and batteries would be described as a fights suggesting some mutual beef as opposed to criminal behavior,  robberies were called pocket checks,  and Berkeley still hast not implemented truancy reduction plans fully because admin fears the predictable claims of criminalization of youth.  Every other adjacent school district in Alameda County and Contra Costa County has a mutual agreement with law enforcement to transport truants back to school sites  for intervention purposes. Past efforts to institute this standard practice have resulted in the cops apologizing to the students for putting kids in a police vehicle. This is way Scuderi describes the truancy sweeps in his email as walking patrols immediately adjacent the school.

  • 3rdGenBerkeleyan

    When does all this end? Haven’t we had enough? The mentality has to change, no more business as usual and it has to start with change at school board and city council. Am I the only one who feels like our city is getting away from us?
    I hate to sound like doom and gloom but things are not good here in Berkeley and it feels like it’s getting worse.
    These stories just keep coming week after week, I wish I was wrong but I’m not.

  • elp

    As bgal4 says, reducing suspensions and expulsions is a district priority in Berkeley and Oakland as well, because they don’t work particularly well as a consequence unless the parents are on board to make sure time away from school is not any fun.  

    Mr. Scuderi measures his words very carefully because communication as an educator is a minefield on a good day.  He has to protect student confidentiality as dictated by education code, send a message of high expectations of all students, acknowledge disappointment that students committed this infraction, share consequences that are meted out, and do it all while being mindful of all the things that will be read   into any statement made.  Stake holders in education, parents particularly, are vigilant when issues impact their children, because they have experienced systemic racism, bullying, profile-ling of certain “types” of children and myriad other issues good, and bad.  If educators are not very careful, even the most deserved consequences given to students, but communicated poorly, can come back and bite them in the backside, or worse cost them their careers.

    Does Mr. Scuderi sound a little defensive, maybe.  I think measured is a better description.  The good news is Mr. Scuderi does keep the community informed of issues of consequence, which is new behavior on the part of the high school and should be encouraged.

  • So fraud to enroll in Berkeley schools is ignored and even abetted for a period Of years, but fraud about daily attendance is a serious offense with a host of other negative consequences. Huh?

  • Guest

     That was my question– when I read the headline, I assumed at first that parents had (finally) been busted for attendance fraud. But the Rockridge residents will continue sending their kids to school– remember that public schools receive money for average daily attendance, so kids skipping school is a big deal, while “figuring out how to have a Berkeley address” is not.

  • Right, so fraud to avoid a loss (of ADA funds) is bad but fraud for a gain (of ADA funds) is good.

  • The chron says this went on from October to January. Does BUSD not require staff to change passwords on administrative accounts with privileged access at regular intervals?

  • CED

     “Change passwords on administrative accounts with privileged access at regular intervals?’
    Who does? Sounds reasonable, but in the real world?

  • In regulated industries with audit/compliance controls to manage risk, everyone does this.  Yes,it can be a pain in the rear, but it does put a limit on the damage that can be done.

    I’d be very surprised if PowerSchool didn’t have the ability to require password changes at specific intervals.

  • bgal4

    video of board discussion of attendance/enrollment report

    I was unable to locate the report in the BUSD board packet online, nor find the report prepared and presented by the outside auditor. Maybe someone else will have better luck.

    Wednesday, February 22, 2012
    Business Services
    School Enrollment and Attendance Report

  • Anonymous

     The teacher in my son’s 3rd grade class showed me the software this morning when I asked to see it.  I didn’t actually poke around in it, she just showed me how she enters the daily roll sheet and how these changes were probably made.  It didn’t seem as bad as I was expecting but I’m sure it costs fortune per seat for what it does though.  It would trivial to shoulder-surf the teachers password and since there’s no second factor (e.g., a one-time password) it’s obvious this wasn’t written with criminals in mind.

  • batard

    Commercial web application security is typically poor.  Lapses in implementation and security practice on the part of the end user (BUSD) are also likely and make matters worse.  Smart kids could figure this out, even if hacking the school computer to change your grades is embarrassingly cliche.

    My day job informs me somewhat on the issue, so if you are curious here’s one site that pretty much sums it up.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think you’re imagining this.  On every level Berkeley seems to exemplify the tragedy of the commons.  We have this amazing collection of smart, educated, creative citizens who all happen to live in this beautiful place but the potential is never realized because their goodwill and generosity is exploited by the grifters of society.  It’s extremely depressing.

  • batard

    Another thing to consider is that if unauthorized people gained sufficient access to the records system to make changes, then defacto they had access to read records too.   I don’t know what the reporting requirements are for FERPA, but other federal privacy regs (e.g. HIPAA) have very clear definitions of “reportable events” and how you deal with them.

  • batard

    Answering my own question here, the “suggestions” regarding breach notification begin on page 38 in the following document.  Sounds like there isn’t an actual requirement, but any BHS parent should be able to contact BUSD and ask “was my child’s information improperly disclosed.”  Any volunteers?

    The Department does not have theauthority under FERPA to require thatagencies or institutions issue a directnotice to a parent or student upon anunauthorized disclosure of educationrecords. FERPA only requires that theagency or institution record thedisclosure so that a parent or studentwill become aware of the disclosureduring an inspection of the student’seducation record.

  • Gimpytroll

    Cut them some slack. They needed their attendance cleared so  they could attend all those Occupy rallies. 

  • Anonymous

    I love that IE 6 is recommended for the “administration console”:

  • Cystatus88

    We only hear this rhetoric when such poor choices come to light… As someone who graduated from BHS, and subsequently worked there for 7 years, I saw firsthand how often COUNSELORS and ADMINISTRATORS retroactively adjust Attendance, as well as TRANSCRIPTS & GRADES to boost the number of students eligible for graduation.

    My own younger brother (also a Bhigh grad), failed Chem twice, and had his grade changed by a counselor one month before graduation from an F->C… And his is not an isolated incident; I regularly hear similar stories from countless Bhigh students and grads… This is especially common within the Small Schools (CPA, anybody?), where there is ABSOLUTELY NO OVERSIGHT, and teachers are encouraged to give away easy A’s, especially to “at risk youth,” to secure more funding.

    I was friends with a teacher (won’t name names) who taught an after-school history make up class last yr with >40 kids enrolled, to which only 5-6 kids showed up to each session… Scuderi himself instructed the teacher to either lie on the attendance sheet, or risk losing funds for the class, a.k.a. lose his job… Naturally, the teacher complied (although with some reluctance, as he complained to me of Scuderi’s words), and in the end, 40+ “at risk youth” graduated.

    WIN-WIN-WIN. nobody finds out, nobody complains, and BHS can boast about how many “at risk/minority youth” are graduating thanks to these make-up programs and Small Schools… Who in their right mind would step forward and admit to this? The Small School seeking more funding? the Teacher? the Counselor? the Student? the Administration? Billy Keys?

    THANK YOU, No Child Left Behind, for creating all of this incentive for corruption in our public schools.

  • BerkeleyPariah

     i like your post but…how is this tied to no child left behind? isn’t that about elementary and middle school kids?

  • guest
  • bgal4
  • Guest

    What, these kids couldn’t forge their parents signatures like the rest of us?

  • Gimpytroll

     So a High school diploma isn’t incentive enough for attendance that you have to offer pretty much bribes for students to go to class … ? Great message they’re sending.

  • Gimpytroll

     Woops, I replied to the wrong post.

  • PragmaticProgressive

    Bside, if ever there was a story in need of investigative reporting, this is it.

  • Berkeleyfarm

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Billy or someone close to him was the staff member involved. 

  • acceptreality

     The story of grade changing has been reported. “If all that were
    not enough, two weeks ago the Berkeley High Jacket reported that
    teachers in charge of small schools are pressuring the science
    departments at Berkeley High to inflate the grades of small school

    The small school teachers who made life hell for the science teachers never suffered any repercussions from their dishonest behavior.

  • Cammy

    Did anyone else think of Ferris Bueller when reading about the students who obtained the attendance password? Instead of punishing these kids, why not tell them they could better use their skills working for Google or the CIA? The 1-5 day suspensions are hardly punishment – why not have the kids volunteer at local elementary schools, or middle schools. Or better yet, improve the security on your attendance system so this doesn’t happen again. Come on faculty, be creative. These kids were….

  • That was an amazing read, thanks for sharing it.

  • iicisco

    Meh old news. This happened last year with one of the Counselors passwords. Except it wasn’t as big. What the students have figured out is the last four characters in the password are their SSN. Haha I like the comment about students forging signatures. Of course students are still doing that!

  • iicisco

    It’s about time someone was able to back up my theory! I won’t put any administrator names out there but one of them has had a couple of Student ID Cards made, just so s/he could get a discount on airline tickets because they were going on some trip. Let us also not forget Adarius McDonald and his “love” for getting the worse students out of trouble. It’s my opinion that if BHS doesn’t clean it’s act up the school will eventually end up in the Toilet. 

  • BHS Student

     The thing is, to write yourself a note (which tons of people do anyway) you have to include contact information, specifically a phone number, which they check against the phone number in their files as the number for you parent/guardian. If you try to give them your own or your friend’s number, they’ll find out pretty quickly.