Attorney says Darien family has rights in cheating punishment

Darien High School

Darien High School

Susan Shultz/Hearst Connecticut Media

DARIEN — News that the family of one of the 16-year-olds accused of cheating on exams had hired an attorney prompted some outrage and accusations of entitlement this week.

But that attorney, Stamford-based Mark Sherman, responded Wednesday that the family is protecting its rights. On Tuesday, he said the family has hired him to investigate and possibly challenge the school district’s handling of the penalties assigned to the teenager.

“While the district showed measured discretion and compassion in setting the punishment ceiling for the accused students, we are looking into the disparate treatment of these students, especially in the context of federally mandated due process accommodations that should be considered,” Sherman said Tuesday.

The announcement of his hiring drew swift reaction.

“Does anything scream entitlement more than hiring a lawyer after your child enters a faculty office, steals an exam, and then disseminates the answers to the grade? This family should be embarrassed that they are defending their child’s actions instead of taking the punishment handed to him/her,” one person wrote on Facebook.

“This is really teaching the child a lot. ... steal a test and share the stolen test and you hire a lawyer to get out of it,” another person wrote.

“Unfortunately, this move will not only reopen the wounds but rub salt in them as well. Disgraceful,” another person commented.

Sherman on Wednesday said his law firm was engaged only after good faith efforts were exhausted by his client, referencing meetings with the high school principal and superintendent.

Sherman, who on Tuesday described the school’s reaction as a “dumpster fire of a discipline process” explained that if the school is going to review each student’s discipline on a case-by-case basis, then the punishment should fairly reflect each student’s level of responsibility.

Sherman emphasized that engaging a lawyer does not reflect entitlement or even mean a lawsuit will be filed.

“When the district takes unilateral action that impacts their child and possibly their educational trajectory, a family is entitled to understand their rights,” he said. “While the district was measured and fair in setting the ceiling for the maximum punishments, we are looking into whether the Darien school discipline here was equitable in light of each student’s level or lack of involvement.”

At a Feb. 4 Board of Education meeting, Darien Schools Superintendent Alan Addley told parents and the board that a number of students entered the Language Arts and Social Studies faculty offices and copied the answers to the multiple-choice portions of those exams.

“It was determined that these answers were widely disseminated through social media,” Addley said, adding that up to 280 to 300 students could have been impacted.

“The pervasiveness and issues of fairness” of the incident led the administration to believe the “most reasonable action is to re-administer the multiple-choice parts of the exam,” he said.

Addley said this is consistent with practices of other standardized tests such as the SAT and AP exams, though several parents objected. Many said it was punishing several incident students for the guilt of few.

Darien schools are on vacation this week. Addley said he had not yet heard from Sherman and had not been aware he had been hired.