in Houston, Texas

Texas educators sanctioned in cheating scandals get recycled at other schools

Monday, Jun 11, 2012, 07:40AM CST
By Steve Miller
No. 2 pencils

Principal Robert Earl Peters Jr. left the Dallas school district in 2009 as the district and state began to look into allegations that he failed to secure test results.

Those accusations would soon compose a disturbing complaint filed by the state against Peters, that he had failed to safeguard the results of the high-stakes Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test at Harold Lang Middle School. The state was investigating whether cheating occurred at the school because of a high rate of test answers erased and changed. Peters disputed the charges and soon found employment with the Manor Independent School District outside Austin.

In October 2011, he was given a one-year probated suspension for failing to properly oversee storage of the test documents. Today, he is principal at Manor ISD's Decker Middle School.

His case points to a larger question, of whether school districts do enough to vet applicants who have been embroiled in testing-related disciplinary disputes. Excising the system of educators with such blemishes on their records is a vague task, and the process and aggressiveness in checking teachers' backgrounds varies from district to district.

Jim NelsonJim Nelson

“If there were a contest between two qualified people, I would be careful of someone with any kind of mark on their record,” said Jim Nelson, former Texas Commissioner of Education and current chairman of the Texas Education Reform Foundation. “I wouldn’t want them in my district. You take these kinds of things seriously.”

The state has sanctioned 49 teachers and administrators for violating state testing rules between 2007 and the end of 2011, records released by the Texas Education Agency show. Penalties ranged from suspension or reprimand to a full revocation of their state certification.

Many of the accused, including Peters, disputed the charges in lengthy administrative hearings before the State Board for Educator CertificationOthers have simply walked away.

Not Andra Barton.

She is principal of Crown of Life Lutheran School in Colleyville, in Tarrant County.

In March 2008, when she was a principal in the Carroll Independent School District, Barton was placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into violations of state law regarding the testing and placement of special education students. She resigned in April 2008 after being informed that an internal investigation found evidence of state testing violations.

Barton was accused of numerous violations of the state’s testing laws, catalogued in a 152-page case file that includes testimony from school staffers. The toughest accusations, though, were not proven. She was found guilty of altering the education program plans for her special ed students and given a non-inscribed reprimand, which does not show up on her license.

While it may sound like a grave misstep, the reality is not so serious; Barton mailed correspondence to a parent that was required to be done via phone. The reprimand is on appeal, as she hopes to clear her name completely. 

"Teaching has become way more dangerous than it ever used to be," said Kevin Lungwitz, Barton's attorney, who represented her at her TEA hearing. "There are so many places for a teacher to get tripped up and investigated by a district."

Lungwitz, former staff attorney with the Texas State Teachers Association, said investigations that end up at the TEA are almost always first done by the district, which then turns its findings over to the state. He contends the process is unfair to teachers and administrators being investigated, who have no input during the investigation at any level.

"They all want to show at the end of their very expensive investigation that they found something," Lungwitz said. "Then the district fires the employee and ships it to the TEA. And for lack of resources, the TEA accepts the district investigation and runs with it."

He acknowledged there are serious violations that warrant the removal of a license - harming a child, for example.

"But there are all sorts of things that can go awry in the teaching profession."

The records of certified teachers can be checked at the state’s database for teacher licensure. Yet the records rarely show the severity or the specifics of a case, allowing the violators to continue teaching or administrating in Texas.

Jennie Owens, a teacher and administrator for 46 years, had her license suspended for five years, until 2016, after the state found she distributed questions from a test to middle school students in the San Felipe-Del Rio Consolidated Independent School District. She will be able to apply for reinstatement and, if it is granted, Owens will be available to teach.

Same with Sonia Sanchez, a principal at Cigarroa High School in the Laredo Independent School District. Sanchez, an administrator with 29 years in the school district, retired in 2008 just as a state investigation into TAKS abnormalities was launched. She was found to have prevented five students from taking the state test, and her license was suspended for five years.

Peters, the principal from Dallas, had an ally when he fought the state’s findings in Andrew Byung Kim, the superintendent of Manor ISD who testified on his behalf. Kim had hired Peters after getting a referral from the Cooperative Superintendency Program at the University of Texas, where Peters had been accepted.

The district did its regular background checks on Peters; “I believe the superintendent [in Dallas] gave him a good recommendation,” Kim said.

He said the testing investigation was being done after Peters was already at Manor, “and he was doing a good job for us.”

Much of Peters’ trouble stemmed from a failure to secure a room in which the tests were kept – a high erasure rate prompted the investigation, although there was no evidence that Peters erased answers. The state found "the preponderance of evidence shows that cheating occurred" on writing and math tests. There was a breach of security but no evidence as to who tampered with the tests.

Peters' case was bundled together with that of his school's test coordinator, Tameka Hunter, who was directly responsible for safeguarding the test materials. Hunter's desk filing cabinet and the key that matched desks elsewhere on campus made for extensive fodder in the state's report. That summer of 2009, as 400 students at her old school were retaking state tests Hunter landed a job with DeSoto Independent School District.

Two years later, Hunter's license was suspended for one year.

The state’s report pointed out that Peters had an incentive for improved test scores that went beyond professional standing – he received $6,701 in December 2007 and $10,000 in December 2008 for improved test performance.

Peters, the report noted, was also among hundreds of Dallas ISD principals reprimanded by the district in 2007 when a local newspaper series on district-issued credit cards uncovered widespread policy violations. He did not respond to an email seeking an interview.

When told by a reporter about Peters' involvement in the credit card scandal, Kim was surprised – not only had the background check not revealed that information, but neither had the conversation with the superintendent.

"This is the first time I have heard of this,” Kim said. The TEA report was not final at the time of Peters' hire.

The Houston Independent School District could have avoided a problem teacher if it had figured out early on that he was lying on his resume.

Richard Adebayo's state license was revoked in February.

According to a TEA investigation, Adebayo, in his role as “unofficial head of the math department” at HISD's Key Middle School, had teachers go over the TAKS test questions with students in advance of the test.

The investigation also found that Adebayo “materially misrepresented his educational credentials" when he told his employer that he had a doctorate degree in mathematics and physics from Rice University.

The district said that Adebayo didn't state the Rice degree on his application but only on his resume, therefore it was not checked.

"We do check transcripts," but only on the information provided on the application, said Audrey Gomez, senior manager of HR operations. Transcripts are required because college hours and course levels for staff play a role in obtaining grants.

Gomez pointed out that Adebayo was being paid as having a master's degree, not a doctorate.

***
Contact Steve Miller at 832-303-9420 or stevemiller@texaswatchdog.org. Reporter Mike Cronin contributed to this report.

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Photo of money by flickr user athrasher, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Comments
Ida Jackson
Monday, 10/22/2012 - 11:37AM

Mr. Peters was an outstanding principal. He was a motivator, community-minded, pro-action leader, fair, honest, humble, and sensitive to the needs of his students, teachers, and staff. The person protrayed above is not the person that I know and for whom I worked for 5 years.

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