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World 'Why Didn't You Believe in Me?' The Family Reckoning After the College Admissions Scandal

01:20  18 january  2020
01:20  18 january  2020 Source:   msn.com

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In 2019, a scandal arose over a criminal conspiracy to influence undergraduate admissions decisions at several top American universities.

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Matteo Sloane was home on spring break when FBI agents showed up at his family’s Spanish-style house in the hills of Bel Air at 6:15 a.m. to take his father to jail.

By the time his father came home at the end of that day after posting $500,000 (AUD$727k) in bail, Matteo, then a freshman at the University of Southern California, was ready to confront him.

“Why didn’t you believe in me?” Matteo asked. “Why didn’t you trust me?”

Devin Sloane, the 53-year-old founder of a water-treatment company, was one of 36 parents who have been criminally charged with paying to help cheat the college admissions system for their children.

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One of the mysteries of the sweeping college admissions fraud case has been over the families that prosecutors say paid the biggest sums to a college consultant at the One family paid Mr. Singer .5 million to get their child into college through the recruitment scheme, the prosecutors have said.

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All but one of the 13 parents sentenced so far has received prison time, from two weeks to six months, for using college admissions consultant William “Rick” Singer to rig SAT and ACT tests or to disguise applicants as athletic recruits.

“I never stopped believing in you, not even for one second,” Mr. Sloane replied to his son that evening.

“I lost sight of what was right, and I lost belief in myself.”

In their first interviews, father and son talked separately about what led to the family becoming embroiled in the scandal and how they are navigating the aftermath.

The Sloanes described intense parental anxieties about college that contributed to a pressure-cooker environment at home and school, an experience mirrored in accounts from many other families drawn into the scheme.

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Mr. Sloane is about six weeks into a four-month prison term.

Matteo, who is 20, said he is still grappling with the revelation that despite how hard he worked at school, his father had still put his thumb on the scale.

“It kind of takes the value away of the work I did to get there in the first place,” said Matteo, who took Advanced Placement classes, regularly made the honor roll his junior and senior years and speaks three languages fluently.

A few days before leaving for prison, Mr. Sloane said the worst part was knowing he hurt his eldest son. “By far,” he said.

The nationwide college-admissions scandal has sparked a broad debate around privilege and meritocracy, focused on the wealthy parents’ motives and crimes.

Less examined is the deeply personal drama unfolding among their children. Many are attempting to reassemble family bonds frayed by lies and deceit, and confront the impact and meaning of their parents’ actions.

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FBI officers were at pains to point out that the colleges themselves are not being found liable; though nine athletic coaches were caught in the net. “Following 10 months of investigation using sophisticated techniques, the FBI uncovered what we believe to be a rigged system,” John Bonavolonta

In what is being called the largest college admissions scam ever prosecuted, wealthy parents, Hollywood actresses, coaches and college prep executives have been accused of carrying out a nationwide fraud to get students into prestigious universities, according to a federal indictment.

“I don’t want it to define me,” said Matteo, who is still enrolled at USC, studying environmental science.

Some parents involved in the college-admissions cases went to great lengths to keep their children unaware of the machinations, they or their lawyers have said in court documents, interviews and appearances.

They concocted cover stories about travel to Mr. Singer’s testing sites, or had his team submit the final application with falsified materials.

In other cases, teens either inadvertently found out or were brought in to assist in the scheme. Prosecutors have made clear that parents were the primary drivers. Fifteen parents have pleaded not guilty.

Some young intended beneficiaries have alternated between lashing out at their parents and reaching out to them for comfort. Some have tried to clean up their stained academic records, or are beginning to hear from colleges after a new round of applications.

Matteo’s family, including his parents and three siblings, live on a winding street where stately mansions are tucked behind gates and tall hedges.

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Mr. Sloane had grown up differently, in a family that went through turmoil and financial problems, he said in his letter to the judge before his sentencing in September.

He saw himself in Matteo, his eldest, and had always told himself he would protect his son from any of the pain and disappointment he had felt.

“This led me to try too vigorously to try to solve problems that hadn’t yet arisen,” Mr. Sloane said in the letter.

Matteo attended the Buckley School, one of the many prestigious private schools in Los Angeles.

From the ninth grade, Matteo said, college counselors, moms and dads drilled a message into students: College, and a good one, was the goal. Parents took great pride—sometimes too much—in their children’s accomplishments, he said.

“It’s honestly, like, kind of gross that they’re trying to live their kids’ lives,” Matteo said. “It doesn’t give kids the breathing room they need to grow and develop into their own person.”

Matteo’s father hired Mr. Singer in 2016, when Matteo was a sophomore.

Matteo said he wondered why he needed another college counselor, since there were plenty at school. As application time neared, he worked on his writing with teachers. “I was on the college essay train,” he said.

Mr. Singer came over some Sunday nights to talk about where Matteo would like to go.

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The college admissions scandal affected only a small number of seats at selective colleges . Especially during the first several days after the scandal broke, it was near impossible to read or view coverage that didn ’ t highlight the fact that two fairly well-known actresses were among those charged.

Matteo said his list included less competitive schools like the University of California Santa Cruz, Loyola Marymount University and Santa Clara University.

“I didn’t want to go to the school with the best ‘acceptance rate,’ ” he said.

“I just wanted to go to a good school where I fit in and would have a good balance between social life and academics and kind of develop into my own person.”

Mr. Singer provided legitimate college counseling services, including setting up test-prep tutors, for more than a year, Mr. Sloane’s lawyer said.

Matteo said Mr. Singer pushed USC, saying it was a top school “right down the road,” which Matteo’s parents would like.

In a filing by his lawyer, Mr. Sloane said Mr. Singer tapped into his wife’s anxieties about Matteo leaving home, to convince them to have Matteo apply to USC. Mr. Sloane was also a USC graduate.

Matteo’s mother declined to comment.

“He was just...as nice as possible,” Matteo said of Mr. Singer. “He would kiss up to my dad.”

Matteo said the drumbeat of expectations became normal to him.

“In hindsight, that is why I didn’t push back as much as I probably should have,” he said.

“I accepted the reality that my parents were way too invested.”

Tom Hudnut, the former head of Harvard-Westlake School, another elite prep school in Los Angeles, said parents often “had no faith in their children’s resilience.”

The kids generally survived rejection from their dream schools better than their parents, he said.

Northern California vintner Agustin Huneeus Jr., pleaded guilty to paying $50,000 (AUD$72k) to fix his daughter’s SAT score and $50,000 (AUD$72k) to help slide the teen into USC, and to agreeing to pay another $200,000 (AUD$290k) on her acceptance before authorities exposed the plot.

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I believe they were actually setting their kids up for failure. After all, what lessons did the parents teach their kids? I always knew my family was there for me, which gave me the strength to take risks.” Whether your kids become entrepreneurs or not, knowing that someone believes they can do

After prosecutors this week announced the “largest college admissions scam ever,” gasps I want the first tier kids to get RICH beyond belief. I want them to cure cancer and make 0 for every This is what creates the extremes at each side of a relatively centrist country.” Don’ t believe for a second

“I realize now that cheating on her behalf was not about helping her, it was about how it would make me feel,” wrote Mr. Huneeus, now inmate No. 25453-111 at USP Atwater, a California prison where he is serving five months.

Since her father’s arrest, Agustina Huneeus has had panic attacks and worked with a psychiatrist, her mother, Macarena Huneeus, wrote U.S. District Judge Indira Talwani.

Agustina retook the SAT in May and started college at an undisclosed school last fall, “driven to make sure that no one could ever again question the integrity of her application or of her hard work, diligence and strength,” her mother wrote.

Prosecutors said Mr. Huneeus brought his daughter into a meeting with Mr. Singer where the fraud was explicitly discussed.

Yale, Stanford and Georgetown expelled students caught up in the scheme.

USC has finished most of its student reviews, with outcomes ranging from expulsion to finding no violations of school policy.

Students still under review can’t get degrees or transcripts until their investigations are complete.

Actress Felicity Huffman’s daughter, Sophia Macy, had trouble sleeping alone, struck with nightmares about the day armed FBI agents arrived at the house, her father, actor William H. Macy, wrote to the court before her mother was sentenced in September.

“Some of the hurt and anger will take years to work through, but we are making progress,” he wrote.

Ms. Huffman had agreed to pay $15,000 (AUD$21k) to have Mr. Singer’s proctor boost Sophia’s SAT score, without the teen’s knowledge. Ms. Huffman pleaded guilty and served a two-week sentence at a Dublin, Calif., prison.

Sophia was a high-school senior at the time of the arrest.

Two days after her mother’s arrest in March, Sophia flew to New York for a final audition at her top-choice college, the Juilliard School, the famous performing arts school.

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The first was cheating on college admissions exams. According to the criminal complaint After her daughter’s high school counselor tried to schedule her for a test to be proctored at her school, Huffman worked with her contact to move her daughter’s test from the school to the West Hollywood Test Center.

When she landed, she saw an email from the school, disinviting her to the tryout, Mr. Macy wrote to the court. Juilliard said it doesn’t release details on the status of applications.

She called her parents from the airport, hysterical and begging: “Do something, please, please do something.”

She is currently taking a gap year, according to Mr. Macy’s letter. (She recently landed a role in the new season of “The Twilight Zone.”) Over the summer, the family discovered Juilliard doesn’t require test scores from most applicants.

Ms. Huffman said in court that in one particularly painful moment since the arrest, her daughter told her, “I don’t know who you are anymore, mom.”

Beverly Hills-based developer Robert Flaxman recently finished a one-month prison term after pleading guilty to paying Mr. Singer $75,000 (AUD$109k) to fix his daughter’s ACT score.

She had been at a remote Montana boarding school for troubled teens, and he was thrilled in 2016 when she began talking about her future and aiming for college. He thought that would give her the structure she needed to stay on an even path, he said in his first interview about the scandal.

He reconnected with Mr. Singer, who had provided counseling for his son.

Where could he reasonably expect his daughter to go? “Nowhere,” he said Mr. Singer replied, noting the teen’s checkered academic history, middling ACT score, and expected degree from a therapeutic school.

The ruse, to fix the ACT result just enough to increase her odds, without his daughter’s knowledge, gave her a score of 28 out of 36.

She landed at the University of San Francisco.

After the scandal broke, she reported what had happened to the school and asked that her ACT score be invalidated. The college opted to suspend her for one semester, said people familiar with the case. USF declined to comment, citing student privacy.

Mr. Flaxman, 63 years old, said the experience has prompted honest family conversations with his children. “The lesson for me is to trust more in them,” he said. “Trust that they find their own path.”

His daughter visited him at the minimum-security prison in Tucson. He wore his brown prison uniform and the pair talked for more than two hours over snacks from the vending machine. He said the visit was upbeat, and it felt as if they were coming to the end of a long ordeal.

“That doesn’t mean she feels that what I did was OK, it just means that we’re reconciled with it,” he said.

His daughter was unavailable for comment.

Jack Buckingham was a high-school senior when he discovered his mother had coordinated a fraud with Mr. Singer.

Jack’s father, Marcus Buckingham, an author and speaker who is divorced from Jack’s mother, said his son called him on March 12 at 6:35 a.m. and asked him to come over. Mr. Buckingham spoke about that morning at a leadership seminar in Atlanta in October.

“Mom has just been arrested by the FBI,” his son said.

Jack’s mother, Jane Buckingham, a well-known youth-marketing consultant and author, agreed to pay Mr. Singer $50,000 (AUD$72k) to have a proctor take the ACT for the teen in July 2018, without Jack’s knowledge.

Jack already had taken the exam twice on his own, scoring in the 92nd and 94th percentile, but his mother worried those scores were insufficient to offset his uneven grades.

Ms. Buckingham, who pleaded guilty, wrote the judge before her October sentencing, “I committed this crime for myself. Not because I wanted my son to go to any particular school, but because I needed to make myself feel like a better mother.” Her lawyer said she briefly discussed, but didn’t pursue, the test-cheating scheme for her daughter.

Ms. Buckingham received a prison sentence of three weeks. Like several other parents, she was so eager to get through the ordeal that she reported to prison early.

After the arrest, Jack contacted ACT and had the testing agency invalidate the near-perfect rigged score. He spoke to Southern Methodist University, where he’d been accepted, according to people familiar with the matter. Based on his authentic ACT scores, Jack began at SMU this fall. SMU declined to comment, citing student privacy.

Matteo Sloane’s father hired Mr. Singer after recommendations from other parents. At some point, Mr. Singer pitched the USC scheme without Matteo’s knowledge, Mr. Sloane’s lawyer said.

Meanwhile, Matteo was working furiously in school. “I grinded,” he said. He’d come home from soccer practice or other extracurricular activities and then study until 2 a.m. some nights. He did a summer leadership program at Yale University. His parents would tell him how proud they were, he said.

Mr. Sloane said he mistakenly came to believe, from Mr. Singer, that college admissions were unfair and that cutting corners was justified. “I failed miserably by doing too much, going too far, and crossing the line,” he wrote in a letter to the court.

He said he now knows he made the admissions process more unfair. Mr. Sloane admitted to paying $250,000 (AUD$363k) to a USC account and to a charity run by Mr. Singer to get Matteo tagged as a water polo recruit.

Mr. Sloane bought water polo equipment on Amazon and staged photos of Matteo holding a ball in the family pool in 2017.

Matteo said his father offered a vague explanation for the photo, and that he wasn’t aware of how it was being used.

A person close to the family said that Mr. Sloane initially wanted to make Matteo’s resume more interesting by giving him another hobby before agreeing to the illicit scheme.

Mr. Sloane didn’t tell his son about the plan, and Mr. Singer’s team submitted the final application, this person said.

A jumble of feelings swirled in Matteo after the arrest: confusion, concern for his mother and siblings, some anger.

Then he saw how upset his father was. “I was mad, and then it kind of transformed into me feeling sorry for him.

When I understood the situation more, I got more perspective on it.”

Matteo said some people supported him in the painful aftermath, while others turned away. “You learn about who your friends are,” he said.

He hopes others learn from the scandal. “Kids should have more breathing room and more say in their life path,” he said.

He has been spending time with his mother so she doesn’t feel alone while his father is in prison in Lompoc, nearly 150 miles away. He has also gone to visit his father at the prison. “He is sorry,” Matteo said. “I didn’t ask for any of this and he feels sorry for that.”

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