Police: Florida teen, mother hacked school to rig homecoming queen vote

In a sparkling silver dress, the homecoming queen at J.M. Tate High School in Cantonment, Fla., stood on the football field on a brisk evening in late October to accept her crown.

But among the students, whispers had already begun spreading about her victory. The homecoming queen had bragged for years about abusing the access her mother had to student records as an assistant principal in the same school system, witnesses later told investigators.

Now, witnesses said, she was boasting about using the same access to cast hundreds of ballots in her own election.

On Monday, the 17-year-old senior and her mother, Laura Rose Carroll, 50, were arrested and charged with fraudulently accessing confidential student information, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Carroll could not be reached for comment and a lawyer was not listed in arrest documents.

While instances of voter fraud in U.S. elections are vanishingly rare, this is just the latest scheme to rock a high school election in recent years. In 2017, a faculty member at a Southern California high school resigned after allegedly rigging student government contests, and in 2019, a high-schooler running for class president in Berkeley, Calif., hacked into more than 500 student email accounts to cast hundreds of votes for himself.

Now, the Escambia County School District in Cantonment, a town about 20 miles northwest of Pensacola, Fla., faces a voting scandal at its high school and at Bellview Elementary School, where Carroll was assistant principal.

The approximately 2,000 students at Tate High School had almost two days, starting on Oct. 28, to vote for the 2020 homecoming court. To cast their votes on Election Runner, a program the school often uses for activities that involved voting, students would need to provide their school identification numbers and birth dates.

Carroll’s daughter was crowned homecoming queen on Oct. 31 under the bright football-field lights. Flanked by her first and second runners-up, she accepted a bouquet of red roses and ivory and black sashes proclaiming her title.

But some time after the vote had closed, Election Runner contacted the school to warn that dozens of votes had been flagged as fraudulent.

“Approximately 117 votes originated from the same Internet Protocol (IP) address within a short period of time,” arrest documents said.

Around the same time, the school’s student council coordinator learned that the student was telling people she “utilized her mother’s … account to cast votes,” according to arrest documents.

As faculty in the same school district, Carroll had privileged access to all student information on a system called FOCUS, according to FDLE investigators. The system houses a wide range of a student’s private information, including grades, medical history, test scores, attendance and disciplinary records, class schedule, birth date and identification number.

Throughout her four years at Tate High School, Carroll’s daughter openly used her log-in to access school district records, according to nine written statements from students and teachers provided to investigators. (All names of the witnesses were redacted in arrest documents.)

“She looks up all of our group of friends grades and makes comments about how she can find our test scores all the time,” one student wrote.

“I recall times that she logged onto her mom’s FOCUS account and openly shared information, grades, schedules, etc., with others. She did not seem like logging in was a big deal and was very comfortable with doing so,” another student said.

Investigators alleged that Carroll was aware of her daughter accessing her account. According to the Escambia County School District, Carroll’s yearly training on the program and its “guidelines” was up to date. Additionally, she was required to change her password every 45 days, suggesting that she had shared her new passwords with her daughter.

One witness added that Carroll would get a notification whenever her daughter signed into her account. “If she logs into her mom’s account at Tate, it will ping that [her daughter] signed in at Tate High School,” the witness told investigators.

The school board interviewed Carroll on Nov. 4, after learning that she and her daughter were likely involved in the alleged voter fraud.

The following day, the school board contacted FDLE and told a special agent that Carroll and her daughter “were involved in potential unauthorized access to student FOCUS accounts,” arrest documents said.

After meeting with the school board on Nov. 10, two special agents began looking into the IP addresses associated with the online votes. They found that hundreds of votes traced back to Carroll’s home and cellphone, according to investigators.

The school district later learned that in the month of October, 212 student records were accessed from Carroll’s account. To fraudulently vote on Election Runner, Carroll’s daughter would have needed to gather relevant student information from their accounts.

“The investigation also found that beginning August 2019, Carroll’s FOCUS account accessed 372 high school records and 339 of those were of Tate High School students,” FDLE said in a news release.

Carroll’s daughter was expelled from Tate High School, according to arrest documents. She was taken to Escambia Regional Juvenile Detention Center on Monday.

Carroll was suspended from her job, the Pensacola News Journal reported. She was booked at Escambia County Jail on Monday and released after posting a $6,000 bond, according to jail records. FDLE and jail records did not indicate when Carrol or her daughter will appear in court.

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