Tag Archives: Timothy Lance Lai

Timothy Lance Lai: Reading Between the Lines

I know this article was the first I read on the Corona del Mar cheating scandal, because it didn’t mention the private tutor’s name and I was absolutely certain that the name would be Asian.

I wasn’t distracted by the description of the school and local environment. Sure, the school is “located in an extremely wealthy coastal area of Orange County “ and yeah, Corona del Mar is a “seaside enclave of quaint old homes and cliff-top mansions” but all the talk about pressure, plus the coordinated nature of the cheating screamed “Asian” (which, for blog newcomers, is a shortcut to describe first or second generation Chinese, Korean, and Indian immigrants).

So I looked up the school demographics: 9% Asian. Definitely not an “Asian school”. Heavens. I don’t like error.

Then I noticed that Corona del Mar is right next to Irvine. Ah. Irvine’s Asian population has increased 25% in the past decade, and much of that is from new growth. Many recent immigrants, mostly Chinese and Korean (although this article mentions something I’ve noticed as well–in booming Asian towns, the first ones into politics tend to be Vietnamese. No clue why). So the Asians in Newport Beach could be spillover, and if so, were less likely to be long-established families. Not certain, just possible.

Then I found the tutor’s name: Timothy Lance Lai. And his picture:

So I went back to thinking I’m right, because this is a schlub. Rich white people don’t often hire schlubs, of any race. Yes, I am making use of egregious stereotypes, but they can be quite useful when playing percentages. And remember, I tutor (or did, I’ve mostly dropped tutoring this year) rich white kids, so have a fair bit of anecdotal behavior with which to construct my discriminatory profiles.

But perhaps the schlub had compensating factors, something that would compensate for the horrible haircut. I googled around for Timothy Lance Lai and discovered that the guy simply doesn’t exist in the Internet prior to the first cheating reports.


If Lai really was a high-end tutor of rich whites, schlub or not, I wouldn’t necessary expect an online footprint about his tutoring services. Rich white kids don’t talk about their tutors almost ever, certainly not online. But I would expect lots of information that told me his background, education, his lamentable preference for Taco Bell, a facebook page, whatever. Google me, for example, and you’ll find plenty of information that reassures and even intrigues your average rich white parent, even though none of it would be about my tutoring services for mostly rich white kids.

If he were a tutor of mostly Asian kids of the cocoon, the ones going to 80% Asian schools, the ones who don’t know white kids can be smart, the ones whose friends also have parents that scream in horror at a B+, then I would expect a website, glowing testimonials, and all sorts of recommendations or naysayers on yelp and College Confidential, because kids yap endlessly online about their tutors, their hagwons, the books they use and so on. Yes, again, egregious stereotyping.

But this guy doesn’t have any online footprint, which means he doesn’t fit the profile of a tutor of either white or Asian kids.

About the only thing reporters could discover was his many traffic violations.

And then he disappeared. Completely. They’ve been looking for the guy since December.

The kids were recommended for “stipulated expulsion”, a form of plea bargain that allows kids to attend other district schools and seals the record. Full expulsion restricts access to all district schools. (PSA: if your kid, god forbid, ever gets in the kind of mess that has administrators mentioning that E word, get a lawyer. District expulsions are routinely overruled by the county or other oversight committee, but only if the student and his parents fight, which isn’t allowed in stipulated expulsions—which is why districts push them. Make them blink. Stare them down. No, I’m not against school expulsions. I’m just pro due process. Change the rules if they’re stupid–and they are.)

Jane Garland, a district official, resigned in protest. The reasons appear fuzzy. Garland, who was in charge of a new “restorative justice” program, seemed to have goofed by brokering an expulsion deal with the parents, then making public statements about the use of restorative justice, which may as well been a neon sign saying “kids got off light”. This led to a small explosion of fury and the district officials immediately canceled aspects of the deal, reassuring the community that no, the kids wouldn’t be allowed to skate, they’d be expelled.

When all the kids were expelled, Garland quit, saying the school was engaged in a coverup, that the kids were all expelled for very different crimes, that the school had known about this for much longer and not done anything. am not sure how true Garland’s charges are, and anyone who works in favor of restorative justice is most likely a flake. But this interests me, given that the reporters are carefully avoiding the mention of race:

In her email, Garland questioned why Scott had removed one student from the list of those being recommended for expulsion. She wrote that the student “was given special treatment.”

When Garland asked Superintendent Frederick Navarro about the student’s removal from the list, he told her that officials “didn’t feel they had enough on him,” Garland wrote.

If all the expelled kids are Asian, and the kid who wasn’t expelled was either white or rich (or both), perhaps Garland was just galled by the willingness to boot the outsiders.

Am I making up the part about race? Just imagining it? When I first found the story, I had stereotypes. Rich whites don’t hire young Asian schlubs, Irvine is a town filled to the gills with recent Chinese, Indian, and Korean immigrants who, as a group, cheat mightily and shamelessly. Very little to go on. I’m happy to speculate, but I wanted more teeny tiny facts to interpret. So I waited.

In mid-March, I found two stories written in mid-February that gave me all sorts of data between the lines. (Incidentally, the LA Times has been less than useless on this story. Score big points for the local papers, The Daily Pilot, Newport Beach Indy, and the Orange County Register.)

“One of the most important lessons he’ll learn”–a piece dripping with sympathy for the students, told via Jane Garland and the mother, name withheld, of an expelled student. The description and conversation with the mother provides more speculation fodder.

First, dead giveaway: “When [the mother] arrived, she was questioned about Timothy Lance Lai. She knew him. He had tutored her son. In fact, he had been to her house the week before. There they had exchanged a few words and she had offered him tea.”

Dingdingding. As a tutor, I go to lots of houses, predominantly white, often Asian (occasionally both). White parents say “Hey, can I offer you something to drink?” and I ask if they have diet coke. Asian parents say, “Would you like some tea?” If they’ve been in the US for a long time, or were born here, they say, “Would you like tea, or water, or a soft drink?” But they do that because I’m white. Asian parent to Asian tutor would almost certainly say “Would you like some tea?””

Second: “She remembered that he would often come home from tutoring sessions with Lai, bragging about the tutor’s intelligence and supposedly well-financed lifestyle.”

She just said he was at her house. Now her son goes elsewhere for sessions? That’s unusual. Tutors either have their own office, meet at the library or, most likely for high school students, meet at their houses. When I say unusual, I mean dishonest. I think the mother is just talking, saying words she thinks will evoke sympathy. Also, notice the kid is bragging about how smart and rich Lai is. Whether the mother is telling the truth or lying, the family in question is not rich and probably not white. White kids of any income level would not be impressed by a tutor’s wealth. Rich white kids, definitely not.

Third: “Still, she paid Lai $45 per hour to tutor her son in Advanced Placement Calculus.”

What? That’s insanely cheap. Rich people would be very skeptical.

Yet in a sympathy piece about the impact of the cold, cruel district on this kid’s life, no mention is made of the mom’s marital status. If she were single or divorced, surely the reporter would point out the triumph of a single mom going it alone, able to afford tutors for her high achieving kid. Even more remarkable, she did all this without working for a living. She’s home when the tutor comes by. She’s apparently home when the school calls.

Yeah. Unlikely. So on second thought, she’s probably not unmarried, not divorced, not a struggling single mom. She’s probably married. But if she’s married, surely the reporter would mention what her husband, the dad, thought of all this.

So whether the mom is married or single, the reporter’s left a huge hole in the story. Which doesn’t make sense, does it?

Takeaways: I’m getting closer and closer to right. At least one of the kids is Asian. The mom’s probably lying. And the reporter is sculpting around something.

The other piece, Missing tutor leaves questions blank at Corona del Mar High, tiptoes close to actually stating reality, rather than just hinting at it.

First hint that many of the parents involved are Asian: “Interviews with families and administrators paint a picture of Lai as someone who learned how to profit from well-intentioned parents who were eager to send their children to the best colleges and had the money to see that happen.”

Notice the parents aren’t mentioned as being connected, as being powerful, as being “rich”, just that they “have money”? Not the same thing. Chinese families have money because the grandparents have only one grandchild. Koreans don’t always have money, but they’ll spend themselves into serious debt. Indians are usually rich, I grant you.

Second, just to prove a point, you know how I said that tutors have footprints? Here are google searches for the tutors mentioned in the article: Clifford Lau, Tutor Genius, Laura Rickhoff, Amanda Rubenstein, Jeffrey Haig

Then: “While Lai taught high-level math and science to dozens of students striving for the Ivy League, he didn’t get his own bachelor’s degree until recently, at age 26, from University of California Irvine. His major: psychology.”

How, exactly, do the authors know that Lai graduated from Irvine? Did they get that from an interview? Did they visit his condo and see a diploma on the wall? Did they confirm it with UCI? I ask because, as mentioned, I exercised my mad Googling skillz to their utmost extent and could find nada damn thing on the guy. Without supporting data, I’d start with the presumption he didn’t graduate from anywhere.

Next, given the story so far, why would they say that Lai “taught” students anything at all?

So the reporters assume that he has a bachelor’s in psych (or verified it without mentioning source), and then hint that such a person wouldn’t be qualified to tutor kids in high level math.

To me, the big neon light isn’t whether or not he’s qualified, but why the parents would hire him without any other signals. You’re thinking yo, Ed, aren’t you an English major who teaches higher level math and history and whatever the hell else kids ask for? Why, yes, as it happens, I bear no small resemblance to Timothy Lance Lai in this respect. (I’m probably a schlub, too.) But when I began tutoring, I was attending a name-brand university getting a master’s degree in a technical subject. I’d been self-employed in technology. I was a parent of a teenaged white boy. I was working for Kaplan as well, which is one of the few companies that can require a high score on an IQ test. Then I went to a really top-tier education school. All sorts of signals. In my experience, the parents check. They don’t do anything as formal as a vetting, but they google me, they ask casual questions, they check with their kids.

I am unfamiliar with parents who let their kids arrange tutors, even though my clients are often the people who go out of town for a weekend and return to find their kids arranged a party, and now one of the girls or her parents have arranged a lawsuit.

So the fact that Lai had a psych degree from a mid-tier UC, coupled with the red flags in the first article, further suggests that the mother’s story is, er, invented.

Oddly, given the circumstances, I could find only one source that mentioned Lai as an “alleged tutor”–Corona Del Mar officials pointedly refer to him as such in their public statements. Reporters, on the other hand, unhesitatingly call him a tutor whilst describing his cheating assistance as “alleged”, whilst oh, my goodness, the poor parents just “welcomed [Lai] into their homes to work with their children without knowing much about him, other than his ability to raise grades. He had become so successful that he had as many as 150 clients.”

I want to be clear that I’m not asserting any of my thinking as fact. More likelihoods and probabilities.

But reading between the lines, I figured the most likely scenario as follows: This guy was not a tutor. He provided a service to the Irvine community of Asian parents (it must be parents, if true), fixing kids grades through a variety of means, but most likely with the er, innovative tech tools. He may or may not have offered the same service to the rich white kids in the community, but if he did so with the knowledge of their parents, I’d be surprised. Timothy Lance Lai is probably living in Hong Kong, paid off by one of the parent clients.

I’ve written before about cheating and Asian immigrants before, but this is new. First, as many news reports have suggested, hacking into a school system is very Matthew Broderick in War Games, an underachieving, over-privileged white boy trick. So hey, cultural crossover!

This certainly isn’t the first hacking scandal a school has faced, and Corona del Mar isn’t the first sign that hacking has expanded beyond its original demographic, although there’s no pattern to the incidents I’ve found. The Winston Churchill High hacking incident was two white kids, but Tesoro High was Asians. This story on Haddonfield Memorial High School doesn’t mention race but does mention one of the kids came back from vacation “deeply tanned”, so I’m going with stereotype and calling it white–they’re also a couple years younger than the juniors and second semester seniors in the other stories, who would be changing their grades for college applications.

The other concerning aspect, whether this habit of stays restricted to Asians or crosses over to ambitious white kids, is the intent of the grade changes. Matthew Broderick changed his grade to a C; he changed Ally Sheedy’s to an A, to impress her. But your average underachieving white teenage boy hacker is trying to get his parents off his back, not create a resume to fool Harvard. I don’t know how prevalent this will get, but I find it worrying that kids have now moved from faking the underlying abilities to just faking the grades.

And can I just say how tedious it is to try and read between the lines? Perhaps I’m imagining all this. But I have to balance my analysis and subject matter knowledge against the likelihood that the media will do its best to obscure race if it doesn’t involve whites. It’s not a close call.