Jennifer Pignolet, USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee
Despite Shelby County Schools leaders’ previous insistence that a grading scandal at Trezevant High was an isolated incident, the six-month investigationinto grade changing practices across the district revealed that may not be the case.
“Additional investigation of academic improprieties at other schools in the District is warranted,” the report from Butler Snow law firm concluded.
At least 53 students graduated from Trezevant without earning their diplomas, according to findings from the report released Tuesday. That increased the graduation rate 14 percent over a four-year period from 2012-2016. During that time, 461 grades at that school were changed from failing to passing.
That wasn’t even the highest number in the district during that time.
Kirby High had 582 failing grades changed to passing grades. After Trezevant, Raleigh-Egypt High had 429 such changes.
The average number of grade changes across the district was 53 changes, according to an audit from Dixon Hughes Goodman auditing firm, the results of which are included in Butler Snow’s report.
The report does not analyze the changes made or determine if they were warranted. For example, students can complete make-up work that could result in an acceptable change to a transcript.
But high numbers of changes set off alarm bells with investigators.
“The number of schools with similar high incidences of fail to pass transcript changes indicates that the issue needs to be thoroughly investigated on a wider scale in light of this investigation’s confirmation of academic improprieties at Trezevant,” the report reads.
The district has not yet said if it will launch any additional investigations, although Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Tuesday night he was “disgusted” by the actions of “a few bad apples.”
Board members largely indicated during Tuesday night’s meeting that this report was only the first step, although they weren’t sure what would come next.
“It gives us an opportunity to correct some wrongs,” board chairwoman Shante Avant said, calling the report “sobering.”
“What happened was unacceptable,” an emotional Stephanie Love said. “And I know that there are people here who knew that something wasn’t right.”
The Tennessee Department of Education is also urging the district to investigate further.
“This report raises significant concerns, and we hope the district will continue to investigate and look into the issues raised in this report to determine if additional action is needed,” a statement from spokeswoman Sara Gast said. “In particular, we believe the district should continue to look into the potential scope to ensure that grading practices at all high schools follow local policies.
“As any bad behavior is identified, it must be addressed, and the district must continue to take steps to show that it is serious about ensuring its grading system is fair for every student – no exceptions.”
Gast added the state was appreciative of the work that had been done to root out the problem thus far, and that the district kept Education Commissioner Candice McQueen updated on the report’s findings.
Last fall, Trezevant’s then-principal Ronnie Mackin discovered grading discrepancies on transcripts shortly after his arrival at the school. Some of the changes, although not all, were on the transcripts of football players.
A secretary, Shirley Quinn, resigned from her job after an internal investigation revealed she had made unauthorized changes to transcripts. At the time, she indicated others were involved but didn’t name anyone.
Football coach Teli White was suspended for five days for lying during the internal investigation and for possessing some of the changed transcripts of football players on his computer.
Mackin resigned in June, issuing a letter to the board alleging a cover-up of the scandal, and the district hired former federal prosecutor Ed Stanton III and attorneys Paul Lancaster Adams and J. Scott Newton to investigate.
Tuesday night, the board voted 8-0 to fire White as a result of that investigation, which revealed Quinn made the changes at White’s direction. White had since moved to Melrose High but was on suspension pending the outcome of the investigation. He did not return a call seeking comment after the board meeting Tuesday night or Wednesday morning.
Board member Chris Caldwell said the response to the report is an “ongoing process” and that the district needs to know if the grade changes date back further than 2012 or if anyone else was involved who could now be in another position within the district.
“I think it’s worth looking into,” he said.
Love, whose district includes Trezevant, said the board may have to evaluate policies to see if ones need to be added or changed to ensure grade fixing doesn’t happen again. But the issue is larger than that, she said.
“Superintendent, we know that there is a culture that needs to be changed,” she said to Hopson. “And I’m going to say that now is the time that we start cleaning house.”