Investigation Finds Grades Altered for Eligibility has partnered with LexisNexis to bring you this content.

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The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, Tennessee)


A Trezevant High School football player became eligible to play college sports after someone changed his grade in a reading class on his transcript from a 54 to a 90.

A year later, on Nov. 29, 2013, that player's grade for a visual art class was changed from 67 to 77.

On that same November day, Trezevant football coach Teli White received an email with the altered transcript of "Athlete No. 2," as the football player is called in an investigative report that flagged hundreds of instances in which grades were changed at Trezevant and other schools.

White saved the email to his desktop, which also contained the original document, and marked a new one "updated."

"The sequence of these changes and the dates on which the transcripts were saved to Coach White's computer provide strong circumstantial evidence that Coach White and the person using (Secretary Shirley) Quinn's credentials were systematically working together to boost the GPA to a number that would enable Athlete No. 2 to qualify academically" to play football in college, according to the report.

The investigation, commissioned by Shelby County Schools to determine the full scope of academic discrepancies at Trezevant High, details an extensive, multiyear effort to boost the school's graduation rate and to make students eligible to play sports in college.

Overall, someone using Quinn's login changed 1,031 grades in a four-year period at the school. In some cases, students' grades were increased just enough to pass. In others, the changes made failing students look like they'd received an A.

The alterations came in waves and multiple grades were changed at once, often soon after schools received ACT results.

In one case, a grade in an ROTC class was changed 12 times. The original grade was a 70. The transcript eventually reflected a 93.

"Numerous changes to the athletes' transcripts were made mere minutes apart," according to the report issued by Butler Snow law firm. "It appears that the person using Quinn's credentials would enter a grade and then wait for the computer system to calculate the new GPA."

Quinn resigned before she could be terminated last fall following an initial investigation into grading discrepancies, although her lawyer said Quinn is challenging the accusations against her.

White, whose teams twice won state football championships, is now facing termination from Shelby County Schools after the board voted 8-0 Tuesday to dismiss him. White did not return a request for comment for this story and has previously declined to comment since the report was released.

The investigation is now spreading to other SCS schools, as an audit from CPA firm Dixon Hughes Goodman revealed high rates of changed grades at other schools. One school, Kirby High, altered transcripts to reflect passing grades instead of failing ones at 10 times the average district rate.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a text message Friday that the investigation is "far from over." The district has retained Dixon Hughes Goodman to dig deeper into the high rates of changes at some schools.

"If we find evidence that any employee fraudulently changed grades or directed fraudulent grade changes they will be terminated," Hopson said.

While districts occasionally report potential grading discrepancies to the Tennessee Department of Education, a spokeswoman called the Trezevant findings "unique" for the state.

"This is the first time we have heard of a situation where many of the discrepancies seemed to be tied to student athletes' grades and where the scope of the overall issue may be larger," Sara Gast said in an email.

Of the total changes made on Quinn's computer system, 445 were made for 29 football players and 586 were done for other students.

Of the non-athletes, according to the report, most of the changes were to push failing grades into the low "D" range, allowing them to graduate.

The school issued 53 diplomas to students who didn't earn them, increasing the graduation rate 14 percent over a four-year period. SCS will allow those diplomas to stand, according to the report, mostly out of a lack of other recourse.

While the report provides extensive detail of how a single secretary may be responsible for more than 1,000 grade changes, at whose direction is still ultimately unclear.

'Systemic academic improprieties'

School administrators regularly review transcripts at the beginning of a school year to make sure students are on track to graduate. But according to the report, the Trezevant investigation launched in the fall of 2016 in part due to a complaint from a parent of a student who was "improperly" advanced to the 10th grade.

"In response to this complaint, the counselors pulled the student's transcript and his report card," the report said. "The counselors noticed that the two documents did not match."

When the counselors reported their findings to then-principal Ronnie Mackin, who had just started at the school, he told them to compare report card grades to the ones reflected on transcripts as part of their usual review. It was that review that led to a school-wide investigation, the eventual resignation of Mackin over how he believed the district mishandled the scandal, and the launching of the independent probe.

"There is substantial evidence of systemic academic improprieties at Trezevant High School from 2012-2016," the report concluded. "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."

The report does not, however, name anyone besides Teli White as responsible, despite recognizing he likely had no motivation to ask for changes for students who did not play football.

Butler Snow investigators, led by former U.S. Attorney Ed Stanton III, only looked at a four-year period, and did not have subpoena power. As a result, they did not interview any former Trezevant principals, according to the document, and cannot say how far back the improper changes go.

Quinn worked at the school for 20 years, and served as the records secretary for 10 years.

Transcript changes have a 'definitive pattern'

The report details the process of reporting grades, and highlights a painstaking process a second secretary executed to make sure report cards were accurate.

But Quinn's "unfettered" access to the system, a result of her job to maintain Trezevant's historical transcript database, "rendered moot" the extensive report card verification processes, according to the investigation.

Hopson said the district has implemented changes, including random audits and conducting extensive training on the required process for changing a grade on a transcript.

In her interviews, Quinn insisted she was only doing what teachers told her to do.

"She said she was doing her job," said Quinn's lawyer, Linda Garner.

But investigators said that's not a plausible explanation because of the timing of the changes.

In one case, a grade was changed years after the teacher who issued it retired.

In fact, most of the transcript changes came years after students had failed the classes.

"Quinn's excuse that the changes were done at the request of teachers lacks credibility because the changes all have a definitive pattern," the report reads.

Changes mostly came in late November, January and February of students' senior year, and multiple changes were made at the same time. November is when ACT scores are released.

NCAA eligibility is based on a sliding scale that accounts for both a student's grade point average and ACT score. The worse a student does on the ACT, the better his or her grades must be in order to qualify to play sports in college.

"Moreover, the vast majority of the grade changes were made 18-24 months after the student had completed the class for which the grade was issued," the report states. "For Quinn's account to be accurate, multiple teachers had to have decided one or two years later that they gave the wrong grade and all of them had to approach Quinn at the same time in November or in the spring for her to make the changes."

Even if there were legitimate requests to change grades, and teachers had asked for the changes, the report reads, Quinn failed to obtain the proper documentation, which is enough to violate SCS policy.

"While there is no direct evidence to establish who made the grade changes- except that Quinn admits to making many transcript changes- there is substantial circumstantial evidence to establish that Quinn made these changes at the direction of Coach White," the investigation states.

Tracking students' academic progress for NCAA eligibility

"Coach White was very familiar with the NCAA sliding scale and how it operates," the report said.

Whoever made the changes to football players' transcripts knew their ACT score "and was attempting to increase the student's GPA to make him eligible under the NCAA's sliding scale."

It was that fact that implicated White, according to the report.

"The evidence shows that Coach White was the only staff member tracking the student's academic progress as it related to NCAA eligibility," investigators wrote.

White told interviewers that in 2010 he was concerned that no football players in that year's graduating class would be eligible to play NCAA sports. He implemented a system where students had to bring him weekly progress reports.

White says he only requested grade changes for students who were in physical education or lifetime wellness classes he taught, and that the changes were warranted.

"However, the vast majority of the grade changes for football players made under Quinn's credentials were for classes that were not taught by Coach White," the report reads.

White also stored copies of altered transcripts on his computer, a fact the SCS internal investigation turned up last year, which along with alleged lies to investigators, resulted in a five-day suspension.

But the second, external investigation is the one that appears to be ending White's storied SCS football coaching career.

Questions remain about who, if anyone other than Quinn, authorized the changes to non-athletes' transcripts.

"An examination of transcripts, report cards, and graduation records from 2011 to 2017 revealed the systemic and pervasive nature of Trezevant's academic improprieties," the report concludes, "and strongly suggests that Trezevant's school administrators either knew or should have known about the improper grade changes."

Reach Jennifer Pignolet at jennifer.pignolet@ or on Twitter @JenPignolet.

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December 10, 2017


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