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A tale of email

Questions arise from emails unearthed by a school district investigation into a former high school principal.

Jerry Bohnen November 27th, 2012

Documents obtained from Oklahoma City Public Schools show that former Frederick A. Douglass Mid-High School Principal Brian Staples changed failing grades of some students, as alleged by teachers he had fired. Emails written by Staples suggest he improved Ds and Fs to Cs because some teachers had not complied with grade reporting standards created at the high school. Douglass’ standards were different from district policy due to a federal education improvement program.

Credit: Mark Hancock

The hundreds of emails were obtained through an Oklahoma Gazette open records request submitted June 4. They were not released until October because of technical problems with the email system, according to Tierney Tinnin, a school district spokeswoman.

Staples resigned after the conclusion of a district investigation into allegations of altering grades and attendance records. While OKCPS administrators said most of the accusations were unfounded, they forwarded the results of that probe to Oklahoma County District Attorney David Prater as well as the state and federal departments of education.

What the emails say
Two emails to teachers referred to grade changing. Staples sent both the morning of Jan. 5, 2010 — one to Robert Hubbard and another to Charles D. Walker. Both contained the same statement in which Staples said he had reviewed progress reports and “determined the grade reporting is not compliant with the DHS [Douglass High School] standards based grade reporting and academic intervention plan.”

The principal made it clear in the next sentence: “Semester grades for students with Ds and Fs have been adjusted to C.” Staples asked each teacher to meet with him “to review the DHS standards based grade reporting and academic intervention plan and to develop an action plan that will assure these processes are in place for the Spring 2010 semester.”

Those changes might have been allowable. Tammy Carter, the general counsel for OKCPS, clarified: “The DHS standards were a little different than district standards. Because they are on a SIG [School Improvement Grant], they were able to develop some standards that were different than standards for the district in general.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, SIGs are considered a “key component” of the Obama administration’s work to help states and districts improve the nation’s lowestperforming schools.

Marcia Muhammad, one of the fired administrators, called the emails “a smoking gun” that proves Staples altered grades. She and others contend he also changed attendance records to keep Douglass off any at-risk list maintained by the state Department of Education.

Attendance policy questions
Another Staples detractor, former OKCPS teacher Joe Quigley, said he thinks the former principal did whatever he could to make the school look good, even if it meant violating district policy.

“They weren’t following his procedures and his procedures weren’t necessarily legitimate,” claimed Quigley, who successfully sued the district for wrongful termination — a case not involving Staples — and now teaches in Boston.

Quigley had his own differences with Staples and other administrators when he taught at Douglass, as confirmed in 135 pages of emails he supplied.

“Playing with grades is unethical,” Quigley added. “Playing with atten dance is where it’s illegal because federal money is based on attendance.”

Brian Staples

He said Staples violated state law and district policy in allowing students who were within 20 minutes of reporting to class not to be considered absent. In an Aug. 31, 2010, letter to Ed Allen, president of the American Federation of Teachers in Oklahoma City, Quigley complained that attendance policies varied from school to school. A week later, he voiced another complaint about Staples.

“Please do not continue to send negative emails regarding Douglass students,” Staples responded in an email.

“If you do not have the skill set to meet the needs of our kids, please submit a transfer request.”

In a Sept. 10, 2010, email to Allen, Quigley again said Staples’ policies did not comply with those in the district manual. “Basically we are continually held to ignore district policies and procedures on an ongoing basis,” the teacher wrote.

On Sept. 14, 2010, he sent Allen another message complaining how teachers faced daily verbal and physical assaults by students.

“The conditions at Douglass are out of control, with students being held to the minimum of discipline,” wrote Quigley.

He described a student attempting to smear blood on a teacher after being asked to leave the classroom. “There is a lot of appearance here of success, but it is based on cooked books (evidence available) and the ever increasing paperwork teachers are required to do to give the appearance all is well (or they face disciplinary action).”

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