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VOL. 132 | NO. 115 | Friday, June 9, 2017

3-Attorney Panel to Review Mackin's Allegations Against Shelby County Schools

By Bill Dries

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A panel of three attorneys, including former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton are investigating allegations of a cover-up, sexual harassment, theft and widespread grade tampering made last week by former Trezevant High School principal Ronnie Mackin.

And an audit of grade transcipts at high schools in the system with a high number of grade changes that began moving last year, by the Tennessee Department of Education and Shelby County Schools, is about to get underway, SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson told school board members Thursday, June 8, at a special meeting.

It was Hopson’s first in-depth response to Mackin’s June 1 resignation letter with the accusations.

“I have a lot of empathy for Ronnie Mackin,” Hopson said, citing the death of Mackin’s daughter during the turbulent school year that ended last month and then the decision by SCS to move a different principal to the Innovation Zone school with the 2017-2018 school year.

The I-Zone's turnaround model includes not only changes in principals but a turnover in the school’s faculty.

“I ask people not to rush to judgment on what his allegations were. He deserves the right to be heard,” Hopson said. “Just as Ronnie deserves to not have people rush to judgment, those people who the allegations were made against deserve to not have people rushing to judgment. …

"That’s what’s been so bitterly disappointing to me. When we have allegations of racism and sex and all of the rest of the stuff what went into these allegations – what it does for some people is it makes them show their bias, show their prejudice.”

Hopson said it hasn’t been a racial bias but a “rush to judgment.”

In the probe of Mackin’s June 1 allegations, Stanton will be joined by labor and employment attorney Paul Lancaster Adams of Ogletree Deakins' Philadelphia office of and former FBI agent and former Assistant U.S. Attorney J. Scott Newton of Baker Donelson's Jackson, Mississippi, and Washington, D.C., offices.

Meanwhile, Hopson told school board members that the investigation of Mackin’s original accusations last year of grade tampering at Trezevant showed grades were changed and were changed back quickly by investigators. He said the immediate investigation as the Trezevant football team forfeited three games in the controversy found “one person for sure” in the attendance office at Trezevant who was allowed to resign.

“The first thing we did – we called the state of Tennessee,” Hopson said in offering a chronology that shows the school system continued working with the state up to and beyond Mackin’s resignation letter dated June 1.

“There were probably several people who changed grades. So at that point we did an extensive investigation,” Hopson said. “And we were only able to document one person although we thought there probably had to be more. But in the spirit of due process, just because you think somebody did something, have a strong suspicion that somebody did something – you can’t act on it based on that. … We let a lady who worked in the attendance office resign.”

A month later as Trezevant returned to normal, there was another allegation of grade changing at another school that SCS referred to the Tennessee Department of Education.

SCS developed a checklist of what principals were to do for a grade change that was permitted and trained attendance secretaries on what to look for to ensure grade changes were allowed under school system rules.

“We wondered was this indicative or symbolic of a lot of stuff that was going on in the district,” Hopson said of the November allegation. “We asked the state to work with us to check our processes. … There’s an audit company that is doing a statistical analysis of all of the high school transcripts to see whether there are schools that have a high level of grade changes. And if there is a statistically significant high number of grade changes, then guess what? Then we are on notice and we go in and work with them.”

The approach is similar to what Memphis City Schools did in an investigation of cheating on teacher PRAXIS certification exams that surfaced in 2012 with federal criminal charges against more than a dozen people during Stanton’s tenure as U.S. Attorney. Hopson was attorney for Memphis City Schools at the time.

Teachers and former teachers from MCS and other school systems in the region pleaded guilty in the scheme in which other people took the PRAXIS exam for teachers who paid a ringleader.

Hopson cited a letter from Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen dated Wednesday confirming the ongoing audit work on grade changes.

“We still have a lot of work to do,” Hopson said. “Now we are going to return to some unanswered questions that Mr. Mackin has raised.”

Those allegations include sexual harassment, other harassment, improper conduct by teachers, theft and more allegations of grade tampering.

The chronology of events and steps since late last year when Mackin’s routine grade audit as a new principal turned up changed grades was news to the five school board members present for Thursday’s meeting.

“Had I known there was an investigation going on, I would have had an opportunity to reassure my community,” said school board member Stephanie Love, whose district includes Trezevant High. “I did not know that. There is distrust. … The community has been asking questions since September.”

The school system’s public response to the original allegations of grade changing at Trezevant ended when Trezevant’s football team went back to playing.

Hopson apologized, saying he should have been more aggressive in communicating with the board that the investigation was still moving.

Love wasn’t the only school board member who talked about the rumors and allegations that came up in the vacuum and then with Mackin’s new allegations this month.

“Memphis is not seven degrees of separation,” board chairman Chris Caldwell said. “Memphis is two degrees of separation.”

Several hundred people, many of them carrying signs reading “He’s Ours. #Supt.HopsonStays,” turned out for the school board session.

And several SCS principals spoke in support of Hopson even as Caldwell said several times that his move to review Hopson’s contract extension, which the board approved last month with no debate, was not connected to the grade tampering and other allegations.

“It has absolutely nothing to do with what happened at Trezevant,” he said. “I’ve never said … any of this is related to the allegations,” Caldwell said still later in the discussion.

Other board members agreed and questioned the timing, but also said they saw a need for the school board to hire an independent attorney to review Hopson’s contract without holding up the contract extension. That was the resolution the board approved on a 5-0 vote.

The contract extension leaves untouched the terms of Hopson’s original contract, which was approved by the transitional 23-member school board leading up to the 2013-2014 academic year, the first and only year Shelby County public education was merged into a single system.

“I wasn’t on the board for the original contract,” said board member Miska Clay-Bibbs. “Where are we today? What is fair and not fair in 2017.”

Love agreed.

“There is nothing in me that says we need to rescind your contract,” she said to Hopson. “But I wasn’t on the board at the time. … I may be considering giving him a bonus.”

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