Great Neck North High School officials went to the Nassau district attorney about cheating they uncovered on college admission tests because the practice was too widespread for them to investigate it themselves, Principal Bernard Kaplan said Thursday.

Lawyers for students now charged in District Attorney Kathleen Rice's investigation said informing the authorities violated a promise school officials made to those who cooperated in the disciplinary hearings held last spring. They said their clients were advised by school administrators if they participated, the matter would go no further.

Kaplan said he does not believe the students received any assurances their cases would not be referred to prosecutors. He also said several of the students who were involved in the alleged cheating on SAT exams had since graduated and were not subject to school discipline.

"We did all that we could and all that we should to deal with it in the school setting, but clearly this behavior goes well beyond our school," Kaplan told Newsday. "We are not investigators. We are not the FBI."

Twenty current and former students from five schools on the Island's North Shore -- including North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, Roslyn High School, Great Neck South and St. Mary's High School in Manhasset -- have now been charged in Rice's investigation.

One lawyer said informing the district attorney was unfair.

"My client was assured that the matter was behind him," said Robert Gallo, of Garden City, whose client has not been named because he is underage. "Not only should it have been handled in the classroom, but it already was."

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Brian Griffin, a lawyer for another student unnamed because of being underage, said his client took part in the hearings because his client, who was not represented by a lawyer at the time, was told the matter would end there. Griffin stressed that his client did not admit wrongdoing. "This matter was resolved at the school level . . . with the assurance that it was a full and final resolution," said Griffin, of Garden City.

Neither Kaplan nor the lawyers would say how students were punished following the hearings.

The first arrests in the scandal came in September when seven former and current Great Neck North students were charged with cheating on SAT exams, an investigation that began after school officials referred the case to Rice's office, prosecutors have said. And last week another 13 students from schools on the North Shore were arrested in the expanding probe into cheating between 2008 and 2011. All of the students have been released.

Rice said her office has looked at as many as 40 possible cheaters, but can charge only a fraction of them because of issues involving evidence and the statute of limitations.

Gallo said he's trying to find out more about what was promised to his client and on whose authority. He said that would determine whether there is a legal basis for suppressing what happened at the disciplinary hearings.

John Byrne, a Rice spokesman, said he is not aware that any promises were made to students. But he said school officials would not be in a position to offer them immunity.