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VOL. 42 | NO. 3 | Friday, January 19, 2018

Bill pushes prosecution for improper transcript changes

By Sam Stockard

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With a grade-changing scandal at Trezevant High rocking Shelby County Schools, Rep. Antonio Parkinson is pushing legislation designed to put a harsh “deterrent” on illicit transcript changes: criminal prosecution.

Parkinson, a Memphis Democrat, is sponsoring a measure in the General Assembly requiring local education association to set policies for altering transcripts and making violations of the policy a Class A misdemeanor.

Alterations to transcripts would have to be supported by documentation explaining the need for the change accompanied by evidence the student earned the grade change. He acknowledged grades are changed often for good reasons.

“I honestly think that once this legislation is passed, I don’t expect us to charge one individual,” Parkinson said. “I think this will serve as a real and true psychological deterrent and keep people from ever going down that path again so we never have this problem again in Tennessee.”

Carried in the Senate by Republican Sen. Dolores Gresham the measure could be made even tougher and strip a teacher of their education license if they’re caught wrongfully changing a student’s grades, Parkinson said.

Gresham, of Somerville in rural West Tennessee, deferred comment to Parkinson, but the fact she is sponsoring the measure is critical to its passage because she chairs the Senate Education Committee.

Parkinson believes some “teeth” need to be put into transcript policies after an independent investigation found more than 1,000 grades were changed at Trezevant High School over a five-year period using the password of school secretary Shirley Quinn.

The alterations reversed 313 grades to passing from failing, many of them directed by football coach Teli White, who led the team to state championships in 2015 and 2016.

Trezevant High principal Ronnie Mackin resigned his post after submitting a six-page letter about unauthorized grade changes by White and school policy violations. Mackin contended he was a “scapegoat” for the problems he reported to Shelby County Schools.

An audit of grade changes within Shelby County Schools has been expanded to Arlington High and several charter schools. In addition, the state is set to audit Shelby County School over the next three years.

Hopson said he supports “any legislative efforts or proposals designed to ensure the highest levels of accountability and oversight in relation to academic records,” and he notes falsifying grades and transcripts has “a deleterious effect” on the system’s students and is “wholly inconsistent” with the school system’s mission.

Parkinson’s legislation, however, will run into opposition from the Tennessee Education Association, which represents teachers statewide.

The TEA’s Jim Wrye said termination or professional action against a teacher is OK if they’re caught making unauthorized grade changes, but he contended criminalizing the matter is “a huge step too far.”

Wrye pointed out grades are changed in high schools quite a bit, sometimes if a student is allowed to make up and submit school work. Other times teachers face pressure, for example, to change a student’s grade from a 1.8 to 2.0 so an athlete can remain eligible to be on a team.

“Is there going to be a criminal investigation into that rather than a policy review on how things are followed with a local school board? It’s all of a sudden going to be referred to the district attorney?” Wrye asked.

Wrye raised concerns that teachers could face criminal prosecution for what are considered standard practices.

“We strongly support teachers being able to assign and maintain the grades they give, regardless of what kind of external pressures they would have, but grades do change correctly all the time, and the idea that somehow we’re going to make them criminal acts is worrisome,” he said.

The education association will be working with Legislature to make sure criminal prosecution of teachers is kept at a minimum and that teachers have recourse if they’re pressured to alter what they believe are “justly rewarded grades,” Wrye added.

Sam Stockard is a Nashville-based reporter covering the Legislature for the Memphis Daily News, Nashville Ledger, Knoxville Ledger and Hamilton County Herald. He can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.

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