An investigative report found “pervasive” academic fraud at Trezevant High School in recent years, with at least 53 students who shouldn’t have graduated being granted diplomas.
And the Shelby County Schools board voted 8-0 Tuesday night to fire Trezevant High’s former football coach Teli White. He can appeal.
The charges against White said that among other things, he participated in a scheme to change students’ failing grades to passing grades and was dishonest with investigators.
A union representative questioned the validity of the investigation. But school board members seemed shocked by the report and with little discussion, voted to terminate White.
White didn’t immediately return a phone call late Tuesday.
The report by outside investigators suggests that the practice of giving passing grades to students who didn’t earn them goes beyond a group of athletes at one high school.
A chief outside investigator, Ed Stanton III, said administrators at the school either knew or should have known about the practice of changing grades. He didn’t name names. The inquiry originally focused on the football team.
“But the majority of the individuals or people whose grades were changed were not athletes,” he said.
Among the recommendations from his team: “(Shelby County Schools) should pass policies to make sure teachers are not pressured to pass students who are failing classes.”
“There is substantial evidence of systemic academic improprieties at Trezevant High School from 2012-2016,” the report prepared by Stanton and colleagues said. “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.”
At least 53 ineligible students graduated and received diplomas, the report says.
Stanton said his team found no evidence of a school system cover-up.
The full report was posted online at scsnewsroom.com.
Board members reacted angrily. “The children deserve better,” said Board Chairman Chris Caldwell. He and other board members, including Stephanie P. Love, said the system should make sure something like this never happens again.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he’s disgusted about how “a few bad apples” spoiled things for students.
White was the head football coach at Trezevant and was appointed coach at Melrose in March. He’s been suspended since June pending the outcome of the investigation.
In a speech to the board before the discussion started, Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, didn’t mention White by name, but criticized the investigation and said the efforts against the employee are unfair.
“But I understand the recommendation is to terminate, to take away the rights of the teacher … It is reprehensible. It is arguably one of the most frustrating things in my psyche right now.”
The district launched the external investigation, led by three lawyers, in June following the resignation of Trezevant principal Ronnie Mackin.
On his way out, Mackin released a scathing six-page, single-spaced letter alleging he uncovered financial and sexual misconduct at the school and that the district “covered up” a grading scandal.
Mackin reported finding grading discrepancies on student transcripts last fall shortly after his arrival at the school. The district conducted an internal investigation and shared the results publicly. But Mackin in his letter claimed the person truly responsible was never held accountable.
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson forcefully refuted the claim of a cover-up, noting the district needed evidence to take action against an employee.
A secretary resigned before she could be fired, but according to the internal investigation, she said she was only taking orders but would not name names. The secretary, Shirley Quinn, has since sued the district, alleging discrimination.
At the time, White was suspended five days for allegedly lying during the investigation. He was suspended again from his new coaching job at Melrose High after Mackin’s letter and a television interview with Quinn in which she named White.
The district hired former federal prosecutor Stanton and attorneys Paul Lancaster Adams and J. Scott Newton to investigate Mackin’s claims, which also included allegations of board members receiving kickbacks on a custodial contract.
White is arguably the most successful high school coach in the area, guiding Trezevant to four state championship game appearances since 2010. He coached the Bears to Class 2A state titles in 2015 and 2016, making Trezevant the only Shelby County Division I school to accomplish the feat.
Trezevant finished state runner-up in 2010 and 2014 when it was classified as a 4A school. White has a 91-38 record in his 10-year career.
Ron Davis, formerly of Sherwood Middle School, has been coaching Melrose during White’s absence.