Election scandal roils campus

Election scandal roils campus

Scott Martindale Register Writer

FULLERTON Two students who were declared the winners of Troy High School‘s top student political offices in April will not assume their posts this fall after one of the candidates broke into a school database and discovered the election was rigged by the student government’s faculty adviser.

Jenny Redmond, a Troy special-education teacher, has resigned as Associated Student Body adviser. Troy senior Jacob Bigham, who revealed that the candidates named ASB president and vice president weren’t the top vote-getters, received a five-day suspension and was stripped of his ASB office, he said.

The actual winner of the Associated Student Body presidency, senior Ryan Daliwal, will assume Troy’s top student post when school begins Aug. 27.

Bigham, who ran for and won the ASB vice presidency, will not be allowed to take office; second-place finisher Taylor Kang will be ASB vice president for 2012-13.

“No one is empowered to change what the students vote,” George Giokaris, superintendent for the Fullerton Joint Union High School District, said in an interview. “There’s no question it’s unacceptable, and that message was conveyed. She overstepped her authority.”

But Troy students remain outraged by the school’s handling of the matter, noting that while Bigham received a five-day suspension immediately after coming forward with allegations of election fraud on April 23, Redmond continued teaching the ASB leadership class for the remainder of the school year.

“The implications of what I did versus what she did are not on par with each other,” said Bigham, 17, of Buena Park, who was stripped of his post as ASB secretary after exposing the scandal. “I feel changing the results of an election has far more gravity than finding out by whatever means that someone did that.”

Troy High Principal Margaret Buchan confirmed Redmond resigned as ASB adviser toward the end of the school year in June, but declined to say whether Redmond was disciplined, noting it was a confidential personnel matter. Buchan and Giokaris also declined to say whether her resignation was forced or voluntary, again citing employee privacy.

Redmond continues to work full time at the school as a special-education teacher.

“Ms. Redmond is not evil and awful – she was a very dedicated, hard-working individual prior to this incident, and through it all, she’s remained a kind, caring and hard-working teacher,” Buchan said. “I didn’t support her decision on how she reported the results, and therefore I altered the decision.”

Redmond did not return multiple phone messages left for her last week at Troy, where she is working this summer. She also did not respond to an email. She was hired five years ago by Fullerton’s high school district, according to personnel records, and served as Troy’s ASB adviser for two years.

Troy is one of the top-rated high schools in Orange County, last year clinching the No. 3 spot in The Orange County Register’s rankings of the county’s best public schools.

Students critical of school response

News of the scandal spread quickly among Troy students by word of mouth and on social media, but students said they wanted an official explanation from school administrators – an explanation that never came.

“The school didn’t know what to do at first,” said Troy senior Helen Koo, 17, who covered the story for the Oracle student newspaper. “The administration tried to handle things one step at a time, but they needed to address us about the adviser who caused all of this. There were a lot of things made uncomfortable by the school not doing anything about that.”

Within a month, Troy students had published an Oracle editorial sharply critical of the school administration over its handling of the matter.

Calling ASB elections “merely a show of democracy put on to humor” students, the students wrote that school administrators had “done little to address the students’ questions” about what had happened.

“Students feel cheated and naïve for believing that they actually had a say in the elections,” the unsigned May 18 editorial reads. “They now question the legitimacy of past elections and wonder what value, if any, future ones hold.”

Buchan defended the administration’s handling of the matter, saying she spoke extensively to the ASB class, and also let the full student body know about the changes to the ASB offices. But she said it was not necessary or productive to address the student body as a whole about all of the details of what had transpired.

“I’m not going to go back and say, ‘This horrible thing happened,’ ” Buchan said. “The piece I will focus on is the healing process – going forward. I will say we will adhere to the ASB constitution and that all election results will be transparent. The ASB kids are the leaders, and they will communicate the process to their constituents.”

Suspended student has no regrets

Bigham, who was in his second year serving on ASB, said he has no regrets about what he did, even though he was suspended from school and barred from the ASB vice presidency seat that he won.

“I know two wrongs don’t make a right, but I think there are special instances where you have to do what you’ve been taught is wrong to achieve what you’ve been taught is right,” Bigham said. “It was by default the best decision because it was the only way to obtain that information without her changing the results (in Troy’s computer system) herself” before school authorities could investigate.

Bigham said he had long been suspicious Redmond was tampering with election results. ASB elections are essentially a popularity contest with often predictable results, he acknowledged, especially for the top ASB offices.

So when the 2011 election had some unexpected results, Bigham said ASB members began gossiping, and Bigham began to take mental notes on things Redmond said to him in class concerning which students she thought should run and for what office, he said. Bigham said he feels Redmond was exerting undue and inappropriate influence over the election process.

Then, during election week in April, Bigham said he overheard a conversation between an administrator and a computer technician in which the technician revealed the default password that teachers use to access Illuminate, Troy’s Internet-based record-keeping system.

On April 21, the day after ballots were cast, Bigham – eager to see the election results – decided to use the default Illuminate password to try logging into Redmond’s account from his home computer, he said. He successfully accessed the election tallies and learned he and Daliwal had easily won their seats, he said. He also captured a digital screenshot of the results.

Two days later, election results were announced at a lunchtime ASB ceremony; Redmond handed over envelopes containing the results.

Bigham said it “didn’t shock me” when Daliwal’s sole opponent was named ASB president, and a student who finished third in the ASB vice presidential race was declared the winner of Bigham’s seat.

That afternoon, he said he met with Assistant Principal Shane York, holding nothing back as he recounted the full story. He said he was suspended the following day.

“I am always the type of person who when they see something they don’t like, they want to actively change it, whether that’s how a dance at school is organized or how elections are run or basic social policy,” Bigham said. “Everyday I find something wrong with the world, and I’m really not cool with that.”

Scope of school’s investigation limited

Buchan said the school’s investigation did not include a recount of election ballots nor an attempt by administrators to revisit the results of past elections. The student ballots used in April’s election were multiple-choice Scantron forms.

Buchan, however, confirmed that of the 16 elected positions that students cast votes for in April, the ASB president and ASB vice president were the only seats Redmond had improperly declared.

Although Buchan stressed she could not repeat anything that Redmond told her during the school investigation, Buchan said it was her opinion that Redmond may have internally justified her actions – at least in part – by invoking a clause of the school’s ASB constitution that subjects all election results to “administrative review.”

Buchan stressed, though, that the clause did not permit Redmond’s unilateral actions.

Administrative review should be used before an election, Buchan noted, to vet candidates for their academic and civic preparedness.

“We want to implement a process where students are recommended by faculty based on their work habits, academics and whether they can represent the campus,” Buchan said. “It’s such a huge responsibility – the leadership in ASB is at the center of having a good activities program.”

Buchan said she spent several weeks afterward trying to decide who to award the top two student offices to, ultimately deciding to take away the offices from the two candidates who hadn’t won. The pair, though, were given appointed positions on ASB.

The district superintendent said Troy at one point planned to offer Bigham a spot in the ASB class next year, albeit not an elected role. But school officials decided against doing so upon learning Bigham had sent “highly inappropriate text messages” to Redmond after the scandal broke, Giokaris said.

Bigham, who will be applying to colleges this fall, said he plans to discuss the scandal in his admission essay. It’s a must, he said, because it’ll be his opportunity to explain the five-day suspension on his record.

“When it first happened, my counselors and teachers were freaking out, saying this will have a huge, profound impact on everything that happens for the next five years of my life,” Bigham said.

“For me, I don’t think it will have that effect. There will be some schools that will say this is obviously the type of kid we never want on our campus, and that’s understandable. But I hope some schools will say that this is the type of student we do want on our campus.”