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VOL. 132 | NO. 242 | Thursday, December 7, 2017

‘Disgusted’ SCS Vows to Change Culture

By Bill Dries

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An independent investigation that confirmed grade-changing allegations at Trezevant High School in a “systemic pattern” points to a “culture” of improprieties in the school system, several Shelby County Schools board members said Tuesday, Dec. 5.

An independent investigation revealed more than 1,000 grades were changed at Trezevant High over five years. (facebook.com)

Former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton headed up the investigation and the report made public Tuesday covers more than 1,000 verified grade changes at the Frayser high school from 2012 to 2016.

Some but not all of the grade changing was directed by football coach Teli White, according to the report.

“There is substantial evidence of systemic academic improprieties at Trezevant High School from 2012-2016,” Stanton told school board members Tuesday. “Investigators found what appears to be a systemic pattern of changing failing grades to passing grades without requiring the students to repeat the courses they failed. The evidence suggests that this practice was approved by the school administration during these years.”

Immediately after SCS board members waived their attorney-client privilege and were briefed by Stanton Tuesday evening, superintendent Dorsey Hopson recommended firing White.

SCS board chairwoman Shante Avant preceded Stanton’s briefing by apologizing to parents of students at Trezevant.

Many of the more than 1,000 grades were changed over the five-year period by Shirley Quinn, a school secretary at Trezevant, who was allowed to resign at the outset of the scandal when she refused to implicate anyone else. At the start of the 2016-2017 school year, Trezevant’s new principal, Ronnie Mackin, reported the grade changes and Hopson began an immediate investigation that quickly led to Quinn. It also prompted Hopson to take the Trezevant football team off the field for a game that it forfeited.

School officials conducting that first internal investigation had reason to believe others must have been involved but didn’t have proof, Hopson said at the time.

White was suspended and eventually reassigned to Melrose High School to coach that school’s football team. But just as the current school year began and White was to begin his duties at Melrose, the school system suspended him again.

The reason was Quinn had given a television interview implicating White in the grade changes she made.

The independent investigation called for by Hopson followed Mackin’s resignation in June with a six-page letter that alleged widespread grade changing by White, a cover-up, sexual harassment and other violations of school policies. Mackin resigned after the school system decided he would not return to lead the high school after a year at the helm. Mackin said he was being made the “scapegoat” for problems he notified the school system of earlier in the year.

Stanton led an investigation limited to the grade-changing allegations, while other attorneys investigated other allegations made by Mackin.

Hopson and SCS board members vowed Tuesday to root out a “culture” that the Stanton report concluded may exist at other schools as well.

SCS board member Stephanie Love, whose district includes Trezevant High, was the most vocal about holding more people accountable.

“We know that there is a culture that needs to be changed,” she said. “And I am gong to say that now is the time we clean house.”

Love said others at the school and in the school system had to notice there were students who shouldn’t have been able to graduate.

“I find it very disrespectful to the children whose parents entrust us to educate them on a daily basis that we have to spend the amount of money we had to spend on this investigation,” she said. “I know that there are people here who knew that something wasn’t right and it didn’t take this investigation to know that something wasn’t right.”

Hopson said he was just as “disgusted” as Love and the board members.

“We’ve got a culture of intimidation and fear, notwithstanding the training, that permeates this district and has for decades,” he said.

The 258-page Stanton report concludes “additional investigation of academic improprieties at other schools in the District is warranted.”

Transcript changes at other schools reviewed by the accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman as part of the independent probe found the average number of transcript changes from a failing grade to a passing grade per school is 53. Such grades can be changed under certain policies that amount to a review, with checks and balances and several steps that school secretaries and others are trained in.

The grade-changing practices noted in the Stanton report are not those kind of changes. And one tip-off for investigators is a high number of grade changes.

The analysis by Dixon Hughes found some schools have transcript changes at a rate 10 times higher than the per school average of 53 and Trezevant was near the top.

“In particular, Trezevant had the second highest number of changes with 461 between July of 2012 and October of 2016,” the Dixon Hughes report reads.

The Stanton report says Quinn changed more than 1,000 grades on student transcripts, including 313 from failing to passing grades. Some but not all of the changes were directed by White. The result was that over the five-year period, 53 ineligible students got diplomas.

The Stanton report found “no evidence” that football players at Trezevant or their families were paid by White, but noted that the investigators didn’t have the power to subpoena financial records.

But it did conclude the school system has “a legitimate basis to question Mackin in connection with his supervision of the financial secretary” at the start of his only school year at Trezevant.

While the financial secretary at Trezevant was on a leave of absence, the report concludes there was “an opportunity for financial abuse.” By the end of the same school year, the school system’s labor relations office was investigating “misappropriation of funds and/or falsification of receipt books that supposedly occurred in the fall of 2016.”

In his resignation letter, Mackin said one of the school’s assistant principals discovered three teachers stealing money and making out false receipts. She notified labor relations.

Mackin denied any wrongdoing, but said he was told by those investigating the incident that he – Mackin – was suspected of stealing the money. Mackin claimed money had been missing from the school’s accounts the previous school year.

Quinn was allowed to resign before the internal investigation when school system officials said she would not name others who might be involved. Just as then, school system leaders say there is reason to believe others at the school must have known at least something about the scandal based on how systemic it was. And Hopson pointed out Tuesday the investigation shows it involved more than student-athletes.

The investigation concludes the goal was to pump up Trezevant’s graduation rate.

Hopson alleges White lied to the school system and to independent investigators about his involvement and that altered transcripts with handwritten notes were on White’s laptop.

White denied knowledge of any grade-changing or any interest in the eligibility status of his players to play college football.

“The evidence shows that Coach White would store the original ‘true’ transcript on his computer prior to the transcript changes. Several weeks later, the grades on the transcripts would be changed by someone using Quinn’s credentials,” the report reads. “Shortly after the changes, the updated transcripts were then stored on Coach White’s desktop computer. The logical inference is that Coach White received and reviewed the true transcript, then calculated whether the student’s GPA and ACT score established NCAA eligibility. If he determined that the combination did not meet NCAA requirements, he would communicate to Quinn (or whoever was using her credentials) the GPA the student needed to be eligible to play college football.”

White is quoted telling school system investigators that he would change the grades of students with the assistance of school secretaries and no paperwork.

“I would say I didn’t mean to give this kid a 65 and meant to give him an 80,” White is quoted as telling SCS investigators in their notes of the interview, which are an appendix to the report. “I don’t mean to fail no kid. If they show up and half way participate, they will pass.”

White said he didn’t fill out any forms and that sometimes Quinn would ask him about a student’s grades without him approaching her to change grades.

Quinn said there were never forms to fill out.

The school board unanimously approved Tuesday the notice of charges by Hopson against White that are part of the recommendation to fire White. White has the right to a hearing and to appeal based on the results of that hearing. The board vote Tuesday is the start of the dismissal process.

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