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Hubpagian Justice -- THE STEINMETZ DECATHALON SCANDAL
Hi everybody. I'm pgorner of Hubpagian Justice. We're like American Justice with Bill Kurtis, but we do other true crime stories that we've seen them make movies out of, since I liked the one they did on the Bobby Kent murder so much. So imagine there's creepy piano music being played as you read about this, and some other ones.
We take you back to the mid 90s. The United States Academic Decathalon. It's a competition that has never been won by a school from another state that wasn't California or Texas. In Illinois, home to the perpetual 2nd/3rd place winner, the contest is dominated by one single school -- Whitney Young, located at the equator of downtown Chicago, just a block or so south of Madison Avenue.
The same exact location as, until 1993, the headquarters of the very state Academic Decathalon.
One year, a team from another school would cheat them out of the title. And they were caught. This is their story, according to Hubpagian Justice.
Approximately eight miles west and two miles north of where Whitney Young sits in the Chicago Loop is Steinmetz High School. A decent school as far as public schools can go, not as heavy with gang violence as others, but still a place it would seem extremely unlikely for there to exist one of ten teams in the city...for the academic decathalon.
The team was coached by Dr. Jerry Plecki and put together with the help of a student in his English class named Jolie Fitch. It was, according to all testimonies, the ideal healthy student-faculty member relationship. Fitch looked up to Plecki like a father. Her own father was always working, always tired, and even when available for conversation, sure didn't want to hear about any references to any literature passages let alone engage in a discussion about them. Fitch became Plecki's big cheerleader, a cheerleader being something that the man could have sorely used at this point in his life. He had a doctorate. He ran a business selling Irish crystal in a predominantely Polish neighborhood, and had to move back in with his elderly mother when the business folded. He was fluent in Polish and loved his father who worked at a factory and got sick from a lifetime of inhaling diesel fumes. His father would be laid off upon the earliest discovery that he had blacklung. It ate at him. And with Jolie's help, they would assemble an academic decathalon team out of the young current students who both the honor roll and Jolie pegged to be the best.
One of them would end up dating Jolie -- Darius Bettus. Bettus declines to this day to talk about the events that would unfold soon. Bettus had a superlative GPA and dreams of going to Harvard, and the idea of making it in through a quiz show like the decathalon seemed fun. There was also a Polish guy named Dominick, a Polish girl named Agnieszka who was so new to America she hasn't Americanized her name to Agnes yet, a fat kid named Paul, a kid who said "faggot" a lot named Matt, and the final piece to this team...a goofy and MASSIVELY creative kid named Irwin Flickas who had designs on being a screenwriter.
They would study year round. Before school at 6 A.M. and after school sometimes until 1 in the morning. They would meet at a variety of places. They would go to Dr. Plecki's house and his mother would make them dinner and pass around snacks. Most weekends and holidays, they were together. And when they weren't together, they were going over questions on their own. The school wasn't always supportive. As early as October they couldn't make any more copies with the copy machine because the academic extracurricular activities had exceeded their budget of just 50 dollars a semester.
At the regional competition, the Whitney Young coach Larry Minkoff, who would die about seven years later, was nothing like the movie Cheaters portrays it. Minkoff was grounded and supportive. The Whitney Young kids were much less geeky. But the cheerleaders still to this day, even though they're officially called Young High School, show up at the decathalon events and yell "WHITNEY!! GO WHITNEY!!!"
The scoring in the regional decathalon is determined by a slew of exams, both written and oral, that are weighed on a scale of 1 to 1,000. There are seven contestants, and ten subjects for a possible score of 70,000.
Steinmetz would lose by 12,130 points to Whitney Young. Young came in first, Steinmetz came in fifth. Because the top half qualify for the state tournament, Steinmetz would be seeing them again. But it was hardly optimistic. There had been a fight in the car on the way back between Agnes and Jolie triggered off because Agnes wouldn't change the radio station when the Cranberries came on. But it had been building since the loss -- Jolie had so much respect and admiration for Dr. Plecki that the idea of disappointing him made her look to start a fistfight with someone.
For the state competition, six contestants would compete instead of seven with a maximum score of 60,000 instead of 70,000. This wasn't a problem for Plecki, because his choice as to who to cut was a no-brainer: he simply was not going to be able to win if Irwin Flickas was allowed to compete. Instead of cutting him, Plecki simply put Dominick in his place to compete at state -- better grades, better SAT scores, and better results at the regionals. Flickas was incensed. The consummate guy who's excluded from stuff, and now it was happening again. From a teacher. But the argument would be quelled as it was becoming apparent that Dominick wasn't showing up all the time anymore. He had started taking extra hours after school, as a place that runs a seven day business isn't prone to let kids only work six or seven hours a week or whenever they can. On more then one occasion however, Plecki would drive Dominick to work so he could negotiate better schedules with his boss. He really wanted Irwin replaced. Irwin would get excited about getting lower scores then Plecki wanted to see, he would read comic books when he should be cramming, and he wasn't particularly liked by anyone on the team regardless.
The ass whooping that Whitney Young had put on in the 95 Regionals would serve to cause instability in the Steinmetz group. There were suddenly other concerns that were more important. They had encountered a school that had looked to be in absolute bed with the people who ran the competition and had every possible advantage even if this fact was taken away. They had decimated nine other schools, including Lane Tech, in ways that were as statistically improbable to overcome in a three week time period as they were mentally intimidating.
But Dr. Plecki had an ace up his sleeve, one that had served him the year before.
At the state competition at Whitney Young in 1994, Plecki had come across a booklet containing the answers to the super-quiz portion. As he stood in a school that was not only housing the competition but an active competitor of it, Plecki instead would share the answers with his team.
Yet here would create a formula that would serve to bring Plecki down in this whole matter, as Plecki would not only end up sharing the answers of the superquiz with that 94 team, but also find himself having to direct a cover-up...for on this decathalon team was a goody two-shoes named Angela Lam who Plecki knew was not only against cheating, but more then likely to turn HIM in for cheating. Just like we'll see in 95, Plecki in 94 has to deal with an extra member of the team who might pose a problem. How did he handle it? How did he keep Angela from talking? He slipped her the answers as well. Turns out our little patron saint here was in the running for some kind of scholarship, and faced producing an application that said Shit-Pot High on it. So she used the stolen information Plecki gave her. Good luck exposing us all now, bitch. Your hands are red too. This is important to note, because unlike Jolie, Paul, Darius, Agnes, who more or less had mutual respect and trust when it came to Dr. Plecki, Angela Lam was simply damage control, and it was the students who were made to feel like damage control...who would end up causing the shoe to drop...
1995, Devry College in Chicago
A Steinmetz freshman has a father who was a custodian and worked the night shift. For twenty dollars, he had given one of the members of the decathalon team a copy of something he found Devry to be keeping many copies of in their storage room -- the whole state test.
As Matt sat outside the next morning looking it over, intending on keeping it for himself or at least regulating who was to see it, he was approached by Irwin Flickas who had brought a copy of a comic book Matt had asked for. Irwin was persistent in seeing what Matt was trying to hide. When he saw what it was, he would become equally persistent in holding onto it and showing it to Dr. Plecki. But Matt wasn't worried, for word had already gotten around the more knowledgeable circles of students about what had transpired the year before. Plecki, Matt and Irwin both knew, would hardly be the kind to ban the use of this stolen test upon being presented with it.
Irwin would use it his chance to curry favor with Dr. Plecki and let him compete at state. He after all, got him the tests.
There was hesitation amongst the group when the tests were originally presented to the decathaletes. Jolie was all about seeing them. Darius remarked that Whitney Young probably has them too. Matt and Irwin were down. Dominick was reluctant, but caved. Paul was nervous, but willing. There was in fact only one person who thought this was a bad idea -- Agneska.
Dr. Plecki took her on a drive near Chinatown and downtown with a resentful presentation, showing her the seeds of downtown's material chasers as indication of how little honesty is truly valued in the world. But what really convinced Agnes was the trip to Whitney Young -- the idea that there would be kids there who were completely well off and American born...posing as Polish immigrants like her in order to get into a school that used private and public school money to take the best and brightest of Chicagoland, and have headquarters for competitions that they cream people in.
Agnes is on board.
Yet one of the things they initially discover is that Matt only stole the test -- not the answers. Each of the students go and start studying up to locate them. They determine the answers and put them on the board. They try to figure out ways to memorize the letters, and did their thing before the movie "Cheats" with Matthew Lawrence and Trevor Fehrman (an AWESOME AWESOME film) where they come up with a song where all the lyrics start with the letters A-E. They decide to go with graphic calculators, pagers, and sticks of gum.
Dr. Plecki sat in a daze, watching his plan get away from him. Plecki was operating under three big fallacies -- 1) he didn't check to see what the California, Arizona and Texas state champions typically scored on these tests, thereby was fully unprepared for the fact that his Steinmetz sweathogs were about to take them all by about 2,000 f-cking points 2) this was a deliberately harder version of the test then the one they took at regionals, which means that ANY IMPROVEMENT IN SCORES WOULD HAVE BEEN SUSPECT, EVEN A LITTLE, and 3), and the main reason we're here today...have you ever met teenagers who think they have a future? They all have something in common...guilty consciences...residue of entrenched rudimentary morality as given by continuous, daily exposure to teachers, nannies, mentors, social workers, priests, and other "good" kids who are 17 and 18, looking out into a future from a present of rented time and believing in things like karma and meritocracies...people think that a collection of high school kids would be the first place to find the kind of sealed dishonesty and long-kept secrets of crime that it would take to get away with a decathalon heist. It's actually the LAST. Kids see other kids getting denied scholarships...you and I might think it's funny because we're 30 year old as-sholes...but a girl who has been working her ass off for nine hours a day for the last six years to get into a good college can envision that kid who got his scholarship denied because some cheater has it instead. When kids made to study look out their window at other kids having fun and not studying...you better believe those studying kids begin mentally sifting for reasons why not to hate their situation. Morality for kids is therefore a lot more then something only the good, nice kids have...it's a f-cking crutch for any of us who are trying to stay on the straight and narrow. By deciding that those kids playing outside are destined to pay for their fun, that they are heathens who are going to flunk out, is precisely how that studying ends up getting done. There are actual PRACTICAL reasons to turn in someone like Plecki, not just theoretical ones. Even if you dismiss the Jealousy-Over-Studying scenario, having tons of people around you all the time equals the kind of incentive to think about other people's feelings that being an adult trapped in your shit never ever could. The kinds of kids who would do something like this AND keep quiet...man... It was possible that Dr. Plecki's plan could have worked -- that he could have gotten seven kids in their teens to be quiet about their crimes for life...but he would have had to recruit seven outright textbook sociopaths.
So Irwin sees Dominick still working with the other kids, and thinks that's funny -- Dominick is acting like he's still competing.
He confronts Dr. Plecki about it...who honestly forgot about this Irwin situation.
This by the way...is the 1995 version of Angela Lam right here....
Plecki really doesn't like this kid. He thinks he's going to blow it. A kid like Irwin would probably get a perfect score if he was cheating and blow their cover or something.
But Plecki knows he's got to deal with this kid, who now is holding it over his head that he's the whole reason this scam is taking place.
So Plecki suggests that he impersonate a judge at the state competition, which he does. Each school is supposed to send two volunteers from college, and so Irwin takes a friend's I.D., tucks his hair back, and pulls off enough of a disguise that he matches the I.D.
Then he sits along the other judges and gives Agnes the highest score for her English-in-a-second-language oral-presentation category.
During the written part, Jolie ends up having to chew her stick of gum as a proctor's footsteps are heard behind her. Yet Jolie had proved best at remembering what those letters on the board were.
In the superquiz, Jolie would give the three contestants up on stage the answers from her seat using signals, pointing to parts of her face.
The competition goes Steinmetz's way so convincingly that they end up with 49,000 points, an all-time national decathalon record.
They win everything.
Gold medals, silver medals, bronze.
The scam had been glorious...as Jolie and Dr. Plecki miraculously had their moment in the sun.
But it had been sloppy.
Back at Steinmetz the next Monday, almost nobody gave a shit but principal Constantine Kiamos who had led the school for 23 years and was delighted to finally see something positive happen there.
As for the student body -- Academic Decathalon? What nerds.
With the team praising Doctor Plecki's name and on television and in the newspapers, one person was being left out of all this who Dr. Plecki honestly believed he had under control -- Irwin Flickas.
Initially he tells Irwin to let a week go by before being part of the festivities, which essentially means the entire shelf-life of hype that this tiny insignificant news about a decathalon would bring. He's furious. And by the time official pictures from actual publications start being taken and he's not in it, Irwin will begin to undo them all.
It started with an essay he wrote during quiet time in an English class. The teacher turned it into Kiamos, who brought Irwin and Plecki in. The essay had been so magnanimously detailed it couldn't possibly have been false, something Kiamos had a feeling about. But with Irwin and Plecki's denial, Kiamos had little choice but to stand by the legal boundaries of the situation, and have Irwin simply write a recantation that they could present if the essay should ever become an issue. The fact that Irwin was known to be a near creative genius when it came to writing put Kiamos in a hell of a bind. It could, in fact, have all been false.
Kiamos proceeded to watch as Plecki would be hit by accusations from two visitors who came to his office, as a very suspicious group of Whitney Young coaches would call upon the services of the president of the decathalon committee Joan Eisenburg, and a math expert from Arcore-Grace. They would present Plecki and Kiamos with scores that were freakishly improved since the regionals. Some had gone up from 125 to 925.
Yet there was no evidence of wrongdoing and no confession, and so Kiamos stood behind the growing conspiracy.
And so Eisenburg told them that they needed to take a re-test, or their championship would be stripped.
Plecki and the kids would rent a handful of movies about kids in shitty schools trying to achieve at something academically, such as "Stand and Deliver". It is here that they would adopt their strategy -- refuse to be retested on the grounds that they would be admitting that there's reason for the committee to be suspicious in the first place if they did.
And so they got their championships revoked.
And so Kiamos would sue them with a public defender who prided himself on winning cases in the "court of public opinion". Plecki and the group would be almost mystified by this surprise media session, but they quickly adapted.
They wouldn't only be surprised by a media shower, the media shower would have all kinds of finger pointing to give them. They had analyzed what had been deemed citywide to be superhuman test results by this Steinmetz team. Of the hundreds of kids who took the math quiz, only 12 scored 900 or better, and six of them...were Jolie, Darius, Paul, Agnes, Dominick, and Matt. Of 117 students who took the calculus section, every one of them got it wrong except for Steinmetz -- in which EVERYONE got it CORRECT.
The shower became a thunderstorm, as the whole country started weighing in.
Whitney Young High School was now deemed whiners.
Shock jocks made fun of them, and made of callers who tried to defend them.
Irwin watched the proceedings on TV and was pissed. Even Kiamos was defending this group who Irwin knew knew about this.
So he called Gloria Abrams of the Chicago Sun-Times while he was vandalizing a picture of his ex-teammates in the paper, and gave her the essay.
They printed it on the front page.
When Plecki and the team returned to Steinmetz the next day, there were helicopters and reporters storming the school. But they would continue to deny it.
By now the kids couldn't even go home without being stormed by media trying to bribe them.The parents tried to protect them, insisting that their kids weren't cheaters.
Then seemingly out of the woodwork, once the headline "WE CHEATED" made it around the country, someone away at college would contact the local NBC network in Chicago, WMAQ, and weigh in.Angela Lam.
It is Angela's confession that she cheated the year before, that would lead to Dr. Plecki being suspended by the school board. His students were taken down to the Board of Ed headquarters and grilled by Jerry Marconi.
He would obtain a confession from Dominick who was more used to confessing what was on his chest to his priest then he was interrogation procedure. Once "ring-leader" and "conscience" were used, that was that.
His teammates were good sports, offering consolation. For the rat wasn't Dominick -- it was Irwin Flickas, who would receive a good amount of threats and harassment and even a few group beatings for his participation in the scandal being revealed.
Yet in the end, Dr. Plecki would never be charged, Kiamos would never be fired. Plecki would get married and get into business with an old friend of his, never teaching again. He would not admit his guilt until several years later when HBO writer-director John Stockwell convinced him that someone is going to make a movie about it eventually, he might as well give him his side of the story so HBO can present the villain in the best possible light. All the kids would go on with their lives precisely the way they were hoping. But Steinmetz would never field another team again, and is pretty much known first and foremost for what one man and seven individuals did...that spring in 1995.