An internal inquiry confirmed a”culture of wrongdoings” at D.H. Stanton Elementary School in Atlanta: Attendance records were falsified. Disciplinary files were doctored. Friends of the principal got paid for tutoring they never performed. And the principal covered up reports that staff members had physically abused students.
Special investigators appointed to dig into widespread cheating on standardized tests in the Atlanta Public Schools never saw that report. Nearly two years later, the report and the school district’s failure to give it to investigators will be the subject of some of the final testimony to a Fulton County grand jury. As early as today, it is expected to return indictments against numerous school officials.
The grand jury has called Mike Bowers, a former Georgia attorney general and one of the special investigators appointed by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2010, to testify about the Stanton inquiry.
“I have never seen it before,” Bowers said of the report on Thursday. “I think they hid it from us.”
After recently reviewing the document, Bowers offered a succinct review: “It’s ugly.”
The grand jury’s interest in the Stanton case suggests that prosecutors have expanded their investigation beyond the original scope of improprieties involving the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, or CRCT. Like test scores, data on attendance, discipline and other matters play heavily into whether schools meet federal standards.
If district officials intentionally withheld the Stanton report from state investigators, their actions could bolster prosecutors’ contention that organized fraud in the school system amounted to racketeering. Lawyers representing former school officials have said they expect the grand jury to indict about two dozen people.
The district began examining Stanton in the summer of 2010, about the same time Perdue appointed the special investigators. Perdue ordered the inquiry after stories in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution questioned the validity of the increases in Atlanta’s test scores.
The state’s analysis of erasures on the 2009 CRCT found excessive wrong-to-right changes in 58.3 percent of Stanton’s classrooms. The state investigators said Stanton’s principal created “an atmosphere ripe for cheating by applying pressure on teachers to improve test scores.” The investigators also determined that the school’s testing coordinator “orchestrated a scheme” to correct student answers.
The school district’s investigator, Stan Williams, encountered “a steady stream of D.H. Stanton’s employees (who) came forward with allegations of wrongdoing,” he wrote in his final report. Williams found evidence, he wrote, that the former principal, Willie Davenport, engaged in fraud, mismanagement and “cheating and deceit.” The Journal-Constitution obtained the report from the school district in 2011.
Davenport, who retired in 2010, did not respond to telephone messages Thursday.
Williams’ report details efforts to falsify virtually every type of document that schools are required to complete.
It said Davenport ordered the school’s attendance clerk to mark as present students who actually were absent – or even suspended. No student was to be marked absent more than seven days, a threshold of “excessive absenteeism” that could jeopardize Stanton’s status with the U.S. Education Department as a “distinguished” school.
The principal also ordered staff members to vastly understate the number of school disciplinary cases. Over six months in 2009 and 2010, Stanton officially recorded only 24 violations such as skipping school, committing violent acts on campus and vandalising school property. In truth, the district investigator found, Stanton’s discipline coordinator recorded more than 100 such incidents that school year.
The investigation found areas in which the principal claimed falsely that students had received special instruction. In one instance, the district’s inquiry found, the school had received a foundation’s money to operate a special reading program but did not actually provide services to students. When the school learned that representatives of the foundation would soon visit, the principal ordered that teachers make up scores for reading tests the students never took.
In another instance, Davenport allegedly paid six retired educators almost $90 a day to tutor students in English, math and science. But some of the tutors did not regularly work with students, and the district investigator said they were “personal acquaintances, church members and friends” of the principal.
Some of the most disturbing allegations involved physical abuse of students. After Davenport took no action on abuse reports, one teacher began documenting her complaints about mistreatment of students. In 2009, she emailed Davenport that she witnessed one teacher dragging and pushing a student and another staff member hitting a child in the head. Davenport wrote back: “You have done what you are to do; you reported it to me. Let me handle it from there.”
But, the district investigator found, “no inquiries were made, nor were any corrective actions taken.”
The investigator failed to confirm several allegations, despite statements from staff members supporting the claims.
The school’s attendance clerk described a family of six children, all of whom were academically “marginal,” the investigator wrote. As the annual testing period approached, the clerk said, the principal told her to remove the children from Stanton’s rolls, to “get them out of here.”
The parents “were really, really hurt because we threw those children out of here,” the clerk said. “That is exactly what we did, we threw them out.”
Six months earlier, though, the clerk said, the principal had insisted that the parents keep the children at Stanton, even though the family had moved to Decatur. She needed the six children, the clerk said, to shore up the school’s sagging enrollment.