Scantron sheet and pencil
Credit: Alex Reed / EyeEm

On March 12th, federal investigators shocked the academic world when they revealed shocking news of a major college cheating scam. Hollywood actresses Felicity Huffman and Lori Loughlin—and approximately 50 other wealthy individuals—are being prosecuted by the U.S. Department of Justice for a multimillion dollar scheme called “Operation Varsity Blues.” The investigation alleges that those indicted spent upwards of $6.5 million in order to have their children accepted into several elite universities.

The schemes vary in their deception. Some involve mocked-up images of students playing water polo and participating in crew rowing in order to secure unearned spots on college teams. Others involve the use of stand-in test takers for the ACT/SATs, as well as proctors paid to correct answers and forge higher scores.

This scandal is an obvious example of classism and white privilege at the collegiate level. The system is already stacked against working class and minority students, giving preferential admission to legacies and to families that make large monetary donations to the institutions. This particular scam is just another attempt to further skew the playing field and give already privileged students another advantage—even though affirmative action is often the admissions policy that privileged folks like to label “unfair.”

These details are already reprehensible, but the scam didn’t stop there. A program meant to help disabled students was abused multiple times. Sadly, these violations will have repercussions for the disabled students who actually depend on these programs and should be receiving help.

The man that orchestrated these multiple offenses—William Singer—is the owner of college counseling services Key Worldwide Foundation and Edge College and Career Network. Through these sham corporations, Singer accepted approximately $25 million in bribes to guarantee students’ places in elite schools.

Besides the previously mentioned schemes, Singer also implemented the grossly immoral plot of having students fake learning disabilities.

Students with disabilities face a number of obstacles that able-bodied and neurotypical students don’t contend with. In order to more equally aid disabled students in their education, Section 504 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed. Through implementation of accommodations granted by Section 504, customized education is guaranteed to students who need it. This includes behavior counseling, physical therapy, different attendance requirements, and reduced course work.

Additionally, those who need it are given extended time to complete tests. It’s through this allowance that Singer and those indicted took advantage of 504 accommodations.

Singer used this very essential tool and corrupted it in order to cheat for higher ACT/SAT scores. In order to get extra time approved for students, Singer would help parents falsify medical records. Getting 504 accommodations was also essential to the plot because it offered control over testing venue—making it easier to bribe proctors and other testing officials. He would coach students on what to say and how to act in their evaluations.

When convincing Caplan of the plan for a performance during a psychological evaluation, Singer said of the scheme, “It’s the home run of home runs.” Still uncertain, Caplan responded, “It works every time?” to which Singer verified, “Every time.”

There’s obviously a lot to unpack here, including the incredibly crass and untrue depiction of non-neurotypical people. However, this part of the scam wasn’t just insulting, immoral, and illegal, it will have long term consequences for disabled students in academia.

The unfortunate truth of the academic world is that disabled and non-neurotypical students are often left behind.

Of the millions of students who utilize 504 accommodations, there are still millions who do not or cannot. Students with undiagnosed disabilities or with families unaware of the rights they’re entitled to are still very common.

Since 1975, shortly after the U.S. Rehabilitation Act was approved, the number of disabled students has only increased. During that first year, approximately 8% of the national student body consisted of students utilizing federal disability assistance. During the 2014-2015 school year, that number increased to 13%, or 6.7 million students. A violation of 504 accommodations—like in Operation Varsity Blues—takes these very necessary materials and services away from students who really need them.

Additionally, when students fake special needs, it leads to more scrutiny of disabled students. From personal experience, I can attest to the critical observations that disabled people are put under to prove we are “really” disabled. Doctors, the Social Security Administration, other government aid programs, and even general society regularly doubt disabled people. Rather than recognize our lives, they label us as lazy fakers. When it comes to our needs for 504 accommodations being believed and met, it isn’t much easier.

While anyone can nominate a kid for 504 evaluation, the school district gets the final say. If a parent requests these accommodations and the school district disagrees, evaluations won’t be conducted. Also, unlike with other special education programs, parents’ feedback is not considered in 504 evaluations. Instead, a group—usually made up of medical and education professionals—will evaluate the student and their past academic performance.

Finally, it’s actually relatively difficult to get 504 accommodations unless there is a clear history of disability that hinders academic performance. It should be noted that in the case of Caplan’s daughter, she was denied accommodations twice before she was approved for the purpose of the sting operation. Whether she was denied because of her obvious deception or because of the difficult process for everybody, we can’t be sure.

Regardless, the deception that has occurred will definitely alter how 504 is approached by the federal government going forward.

A program meant to level the playing field for students with disabilities was instead abused to offer unfair advantages to already privileged students. Unfortunately, the almost 50 indictments resulting from Operation Varsity Blues is unlikely to ever make this right.