Protecting Kids On Sets: Second In A Series

EXCLUSIVE: Hollywood is awash in fake high-school diplomas that allow underage actors to circumvent California’s strict child-labor laws and work as adults. The sham has been going on for years, enabled by a plethora of diploma mills, willing parents, hard-driving agents and managers, complicit casting directors and producers looking to save a buck.

That may finally be changing. One Internet diploma mill that was a go-to venue for Hollywood was shut down last month by the state of Texas. That should cause every casting director and producer in town to take a closer look at the online diplomas their young performers are presenting as proof of graduation.

Jackie Cooper studying on 'Treasure Island'Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of actors as young as 14 have been issued fake diplomas through these sites so that they can be employed as “Legal 18,” a loophole that allows them to work the same hours, often very long ones, as adults without the protection of a studio teacher on the set to oversee their safety, education and welfare. It also allows producers to take them on location to work in sometimes adverse conditions and late into the night.

DR. JENN BERMAN“It’s very detrimental,” said psychotherapist Jenn Berman, host of VH1‘s Couples Therapy With Dr. Jenn, whose private practice in Los Angeles includes many child actors and their parents.

“It creates a lot of anxiety, depression and resentment,” Berman said. “It hurts the parent-child relationship.”

Being forced to work as adults “teaches child actors that they are disposable workhorses and that fulfilling their parents’ narcissistic needs is more important than their educations,” she added. “It shortchanges them on their education, and that will harm them later in life.”

In August, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott shut down the Lincoln Academy, one of Hollywood’s go-to diploma mills, after finding that it “falsely claimed to be an accredited educational institution.”

Such schools, Abbott said, are often “only available online, lack nationally recognized regional accreditation, and permit students to complete degrees in a matter of hours or days with minimal coursework.”

After closing the school, Abbott issued a warning to “all educational institutions to be diligent in reviewing purported high-school transcripts” issued by the Lincoln Academy. That warning applies to Hollywood employers as well.

Following the A.G.’s move, child performers with Lincoln Academy diplomas can no longer be classified as Legal 18 and may only be hired as minors. Casting directors and employers will have to be more diligent about hiring any Legal 18s with nothing but an online diploma to prove their adult status, because virtually all of those diplomas are fake. Employing minors with fake diplomas as adults could expose producers to serious legal problems.

Finding kids who can “legally” work as adults is a routine chore for many casting directors. Many producers prefer– and even demand — that their teenage actors be Legal 18 because it saves them lots of money.

A recent casting notice for Criminal Minds, for example, was looking for a female “legal 18 to play 16.” Hiring a 16-year-old who is not Legal 18 could cost the producers more money by limiting the number of hours the child can legally work and requiring a studio teacher be engaged for three hours of schooling. Another casting notice, for a Mattel commercial, sought half a dozen Legal 18 performers. “All talent must be a Legal 18 but must look 15-17,” according to the notice.

Fake diplomas can be licenses to exploit children.

Dennison Academy Fake High School Diplomas“About six years ago,” recalled studio teacher Judy Brown, “we had a 15-year-old actress on a soap opera and her agent was pushing her mom to have the girl declared Legal 18 so she could be ‘more competitive’ and not have the restrictions of child labor laws.”

At the agent’s urging, the mother enrolled her daughter in the Dennison Academy, paid a $250 fee by credit card, and the following Saturday took the girl to an office building with a small room filled with other teens, almost all actors, sitting at old-fashioned school desks. The mother later told Brown that the “principal” Larry Dennison, gave the children a simple multiple-choice test and then asked each of them to write an essay about what they’d done on their summer vacations. The whole thing took less than an hour. Dennison collected the papers, left the room and returned a half hour later. “Everybody passed!” Brown said. “It’s crazy.”

The young actress, Brown recalled, thought that “this was the best bargain in the world” — until she came to realize what it means for a child to work as an adult in Hollywood. Soon she was booked on a film that took her to work in Detroit, where she worked 14-hour days for two weeks without a break, much of it outdoors during the night. When the girl’s mother protested, she was brushed aside by the producers.

“The mother tore up the diploma,” Brown said, “and that was the last time she allowed her daughter to be submitted for roles as Legal 18.”

Dennison could not be reached for comment, and the Dennison Academy has since closed. Plenty more diploma mills have sprung up to fill the void, abetted by pressure from the industry to find children who can work as adults. Some agents and managers, in turn, urge parents to get their children fake diplomas and turn Legal 18 so their kids can compete for jobs on the same footing as real 18-year-olds.

Julie Stevens On Child Actors Studying“A parent I know personally knows several families that went this route,” said studio teacher and former child actor Julie Stevens, now a leading critic of the system that exploits underage actors. “When the casting director asks for Legal 18 and a kid goes in to audition, they assume that the kid is telling the truth. When the kid gets hired and a company wants to cover their asses to be sure, they ask for a copy of the diploma. Do you really think they care if the diploma came from a bogus online school? Of course not.”

Online diploma mills even make it possible for parents to take the “graduation exams” for their children. Some hand out high school diplomas in a single afternoon and others award diplomas even if all the questions on their exams are answered incorrectly — as long as the fee is paid. The Lincoln Academy and Adison High School, both based in Houston, California Dept. of Education Seal 2“have been the two most widely used online ‘schools’ that kids in the industry use to obtain false high school diplomas,” Stevens said. But there are many others. Some gifted child actors are able to become Legal 18 by passing a rigorous test called the California High School Proficiency Exam (CHSPE), which is open to second-semester high school sophomores. According to the California Department of Education, a CHSPE certificate “is equal by law to a California high school diploma.” Yet even CHSPE certificates can be falsified. Many such certificates are posted online, and by simply adding a different child’s name, it can easily pass as the real thing, Stevens said.

Another recent casting notice, this one for a pilot presentation for a one-hour drama called Dawn, with director Sam Raimi at the helm, said that the company, Silver Screen Productions, was looking to audition “emancipated 14 to small 16 year olds” to play the role of Lalassu in a story about the first contact between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals. Sometimes casting agents use the wrong terminology, but what they want are 14-17-year-old kids who producers can hire and employ as adults.

“Parents are paying for fake online GED and high school diplomas so their 14-to-17-year-olds can be hired as Legal 18 in the entertainment industry,” Stevens told Deadline. “Many of the popular TV shows that portray kids in high school only hire actors who are over 18 or Legal 18 to play younger. Many TV movies that shoot in Canada also only want over-18 or Legal 18. Why? Longer hours on set, no teachers, no parents, and adult content. When managers and agents see this written explicitly in a casting breakdown, they encourage their 14-to-17-year-old clients to become Legal 18 so that they can have ‘more opportunities.’”

Three years ago, a 16-year-old actress was hired as a Legal 18 on a TV series and said she had a diploma to prove she could work as an adult. The studio teacher asked to see her diploma and immediately became suspicious. “It just looked fake,” the studio teacher said. He mentioned it to the casting director, who was not pleased. “The casting agent was irritated that I was bringing this to anyone’s attention, but I told him this could create a legal problem for the production company. So he called the company and they decided to disregard her diploma.” The young actress was allowed to work, but as a minor subject to the state’s child labor laws.

Belford_High_School_Diploma_David RobbWhen the studio teacher Googled the school’s name, Belford High School, the first thing that came up was a newspaper account of a class action lawsuit filed on behalf of 30,500 people who had each paid $399 for their fake diplomas. In 2012, a U.S. District Court judge found the school and its owner, Pakistani businessman Salem Kureshi, in contempt and ordered him to pay $22,783,500 in damages. Somehow the school, which promises diplomas “without any hassle of attending classes” and “without studying long hours for tough exams,” is still in business.

The studio teacher then went to the school’s website. “They let you take the test, and if you pass, they send you a diploma,” he said. “So I took the test and intentionally answered every question wrong. What came back was a message that I’d passed the exam, and that all I had to do was enter my credit card number and they’d send me a diploma.”

Child Actors Impacted By High School Diploma ScamTwo months later, another 16-year-old kid on the same show showed up with another online diploma as proof that he could work as an adult. “Twice on the same show in two months,” the studio teacher said. He asked to see the diploma, and it too looked fake. It had been issued by the Lorenz High School, another popular Hollywood diploma mill. Once again the studio teacher brought it to the casting director’s attention. “The company figured there’s this rash of bogus diplomas out there,” the studio teacher said, and once again the company disregarded the diploma and the kid was employed as a minor.

Like the Lincoln Academy, Adison High School, which is still in business, offers no classes and has no faculty. “Adison has awarded thousands of graduates from different parts of the world with internationally accredited high school diplomas,” it says on its website.

Calls to the school to see where it’s located got various responses. One person who answered the phone said it’s located in Richmond, VA. Another said Houston. Another said that as an online school, it doesn’t have any physical location at all. When Deadline asked to speak to a member of the faculty, a person who answered the phone said, “I am one.” Asked his name, he said, “Harry.” Asked what he teaches, he hung up. Numerous other calls were met with the same evasive answers and hang-ups.

The school, which charges $369 for a diploma, is accredited by the “International Accreditation Committee of Online Schools,” whose “mission,” according to its website, is to “recognize and accredit only those online institutions that follow best practices and are educationally profound.” A call to the site’s listed phone number produced an announcement that the number “is not assigned.”

The California Department of Education is powerless to close these bogus diploma mills. “The state has no oversight over private schools,” said Tina Jung, a CDE public information officer. It would take an act of Congress to shut down all online high schools, so many of which are frauds. Short of that, the forced closure of the Lincoln Academy should be a red flag for Hollywood — a warning that employing young kids with phony diplomas as adults could be a class-action lawsuit just waiting to be filed — this one based in Hollywood.