CENTERBURG — On Friday, Centerburg High School seniors, along with many parents, gathered in front of the school to protest the school board’s decision to cancel formal graduation ceremonies. Emotions are running high.
“I’m very confused right now,” said honor student Morgan Long. “I don’t understand. ...”
James Smith, another honor student, said, “I’m just annoyed. We worked 13 years to get to this point and this shouldn’t be happening. We can’t enjoy our final memories with our friends.”
“This is just ridiculous,” said honor student Jessica Metcalf. “I don’t get recognized with a ceremony to actually have recognition that I’ve been here for 13 years. ... I didn’t even know about it [the cheating] and some of the kids didn’t even take his class that they say cheated. It doesn’t make any sense at all.”
High school principal John Morgan regrets that what should be a happy, celebratory time has turned into a time of sadness and anger.
“My heart breaks for the students and their families,” he said.
Lynn McCann, school board president, said the board spent four hours Thursday evening discussing options when evidence of cheating by some students on tests administered by world social studies teacher Mike Vargo came to light.
“We toyed with the idea about postponing commencement for a week to keep investigating to see where it leads,” he said. “If you go back through the test scores of, let’s say, John Smith, and it is decided that he cheated on this one and this one and that one, he would get a zero and a zero and a zero. That could knock his grade down enough to fail. He would not pass a required course and he would not graduate.”
“Cheating is a very difficult thing to prove,” said McCann, a former teacher. “If a kid’s averaging 50 percent on a test and all of a sudden he gets 95 percent, you might be suspicious. Unless you had some other proof, though, he could say, ‘Look, I wasn’t getting very good grades and I just studied may tail off.’ Really you can’t prove otherwise, so we decided against that option.
“This is a very sad day for Centerburg Schools,” he continued. “In small rural communities like ours, one of the three or four biggest days of the year is commencement. We have 1,500, 2,000 people in the gym, hundreds more come into the district. Graduation is kind of a rite of passage for seniors before they go out into the world. And we’re just very sorry it has come to this. If it had not been such a widespread problem — if it had been just a couple of kids or something. ... The other tragedy is, we’ve got 35 or 40 other kids who were not in [Vargo’s] class or who were career center students or something who were not involved in any way shape or form that we know of, and they’re a victim here. They are not having their commencement. It’s a sad situation.”
Although a handful of individuals have stated administrators knew since April, superintendent Dorothy Holden on Friday said that is not the case.
“Mr. Vargo in world social studies class started noticing some spikes in grades for students whose grades were not normally that high,” she said. “He was seeing things on his tests that he didn’t understand, but we as an administration did not have any proof of who was involved or what actually was happening. Mr. Vargo was trying to find out how the students were gaining access to his tests, and it was not until Tuesday of this week that our tech person was able to specifically identify the way the student had infiltrated our computer system.
“A student video clip that featured this particular graduating senior was left on a computer in the computer lab,” Holden explained. “In that video, the student hacker makes reference to the ‘biggest prank in Centerburg history’ and mentioned putting this on YouTube after graduation to reveal to the whole world the ‘big prank that had been pulled here at Centerburg all this time.’ And so, that gave us a student’s name. The computer that had been used by the student in the computer lab was looked at, and he had not removed things. It gave him a feed at home and he apparently was using flash drives to take data.”
That, she said, allowed him to watch Mr. Vargo’s activity and when Vargo sent something to the printer, like an unannounced test, the student could then download that item and know it was the actual test that was going to be administered on a certain day.
“Other students have confirmed the information,” Holden said, “as has the IT guy and law enforcement. The student has cooperated with the authorities, who have impounded his computer and flashdrives, and he gave permission for his personal computer to be opened. That didn’t occur until 3:00 [Thursday]. At that time we saw the different folders and also found another teacher’s folders had been compromised.”
“On the up side,” McCann said, “ everybody, all except this hacker, is still going to get his or her diploma. Nobody’s going to lose their honors or class ranking; scholarships are still intact. Any relatives that came in this weekend, you can still have the graduation party. The only thing anybody is missing is sitting in the gym for an hour and a half. I know that’s important to a lot of people, but that’s the only thing you’re really losing.”