"Everybody's Doing It": Cheating Scandal Shows How Privileged Kids Fake Disability

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According to parents and counselors, it’s common practice for parents at elite schools to pay for a doctor’s diagnosis that allows their children extra test-taking time, whether or not they need it.

Roughly six weeks before the FBI released a 203-page indictment implicating 50 people in the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted by the Department of Justice, a student at L.A.’s elite Harvard-Westlake school penned an opinion piece titled “Start Putting Extra Time to the Test” in the school’s paper, The Chronicle.

Jessa Glassman, a junior, called attention to a problem at her elite private school: extra time for tests, intended to help children with learning disabilities level the playing field, but which she believes many of her peers have abused.

“I have seen more than a few of my classmates flock to specialists with the hopes of being diagnosed with a disorder that would qualify them for extra time on their entrance exams,” Glassman wrote. “Extra time has been exploited by some wealthy families who use their easy access to expensive medical professionals to give their children an upper hand in the college admissions process.”

In theory, the extra time policy is well intentioned. Kids diagnosed with anxiety, or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or a number of other maladies are allowed a more flexible deadline in which to complete the arduous college entrance exams.

According to data compiled by the Wall Street Journal in 2018, some 25 percent of students at elite American universities are now classified as disabled, “largely because of mental health issues such as depression or anxiety.” One school, Pomona College, reported a 17 percent jump in the number of disabled students in just five years.

Students and parents have been taking advantage of the extra time practice since at least 1990, when the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed, which created a framework for more flexibility.

In 2000, a California audit of test takers showed higher numbers of wealthy and white students receiving extra time exemptions, which led to a temporary crackdown and a lawsuit. Three years later, according to the New York Times, the College Board stopped recording the discrepancies, and “the incentive grew to game the system.” Now, in the wake of explosive allegations rocking the country’s elite educational institutions, the practice is under scrutiny.

That public vetting came in the form of an FBI operation dubbed “Operation Varsity Blues.” Actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin were among the 50 people charged in the nationwide sting in which parents allegedly paid tens of millions in bribes to get their children into elite colleges, including Yale, Stanford and the University of Southern California. According to the FBI’s indictment, Varsity Blues mastermind, William “Rick” Singer, offered paying clients a range of services that took the concept of extra time and pushed it to an extreme degree, making room for an array of criminal offenses.

According to the indictment, Singer told one client, Gordon R. Caplan, the co-chairman of New York law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP, to instruct his daughter “to be stupid, not to be as smart as she is” when being tested by a psychologist on Singer’s payroll, who would then diagnose the student with a learning disability, thus qualifying her for extra time.

“None of this is new,” says Collette Bowers Zinn, a former administrator at Wildwood and Brentwood who started education consultancy firm Zinn Education Management two years ago. “It just wasn’t weighing on most people’s conscience before. Sometimes public shaming is the only way to shed light on such rigged systems and to hold people accountable.”

Zinn believes the exorbitant costs of tutors and classes give the wealthy an unfair advantage, even before taking into account possible bribes.

“There are high school students who have legitimate learning challenges and who honestly need these accommodations,” says Evelyn Alexander, a certified educational planner based in L.A. who has helped industry parents shepherd their children into dozens of private L.A schools. “It’s insulting to people who truly do need the extra time, it’s just horrible.”

Alexander said she knew someone from a private school who took her son to a psychiatrist and instructed him to give wrong answers to questions, specifically in order to get the qualifying diagnosis.

“I said what you’re doing is wrong,” said Alexander. The friend replied, “Everybody’s doing it.”

According to parents and school consultants, the extra time charade has been an open secret for years. “Parents talk about it, kids talk about it,” says Christina Simon, a Viewpoint parent and co-author of the book Beyond the Brochure: An Insider’s Guide to Private Elementary Schools in Los Angeles. “The schools are aware of it, but they can’t do anything about the fake diagnoses because they have been provided by doctors. It gets very tricky,” she says.

According to interviews with parents and educational experts, certain psychologists and educational therapists who specialize in learning disabilities charge exorbitant fees, often in the range of $5,000, to give a diagnosis that will result in extra time.

“It takes parents about one second to find these doctors,” says Simon, “These fake diagnoses are part of the problem and it’s something that allowed this scandal in part to take place.” Her children, both of whom are in high school, have never applied for the extra time exemption, and Simon is firmly opposed to the abuse of the practice.

Parents point to the fact that kids often only invoke extra time for big standardized tests like the SAT or the ACT. (The College Board, which administers both tests, has not yet responded to a request to comment.)

Education consultant Betsy Braun says that part of the problem may lie in the fact that there is less stigma around learning disabilities than in the past.

“It’s become normalized,” Braun says, “Everyone knows someone who [legitimately] has ADHD or a focus disorder.”

Braun says she has never encountered a mental health professional who has willingly lied on behalf of a concerned, or perhaps desperate, parent. And while she does recommend that any parent who suspects their child might have a learning disability to get the child tested, she says the abuse of the extra time clause is a “disgusting way for parents to get their children into an advantageous position.”