Witnesses and a secret recording described an environment of fear, high pressure and retaliation at Austin High School over three days of testimony in federal court.
Former and current teachers, counselors, administrators and officials with the El Paso Independent School District and the Texas Education Agency described to jurors how they either noticed, compiled data for, reported on or became a part of a cheating scheme to manipulate student grades and student credits in an effort to skirt accountability measures.
In addition, Austin High school counselor Elizabeth Saucedo said she and other counselors were directed to remove students from classes if a teacher was suspected of speaking to the FBI.
Those facing federal charges are Nancy Love, Diane Thomas and Mark Philip Tegmeyer, former assistant principals at Austin High School; James Anderson, former Associate Superintendent and John Tanner, former principal at Austin High School.
Following Vanessa Foreman’s testimony on Tuesday, the U.S. District Attorneys Robert Almonte, Debra Kanof and Assistant District Attorney Rifian S. Newaz called several witnesses to describe how Thomas, Tanner, Tegmeyer,
Love, Anderson, former Associate Superintendent of Priority Schools Damon Murphy and former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia directed them in the scheme.
Murphy pled guilty in June of 2016 and is expected to be sentenced in July.
Garcia was arrested by the FBI and charged in August 2011 for steering a $450,000 no- bid contract to his mistress and inflating student grade scores in an effort to cheat federal accountability measures. He also served 2 1/2 years in federal prison.
Testimony from Wednesday through Friday indicated that several individuals within the district and with the Texas Education Agency had flagged strange occurrences with grades at Austin High School which later snowballed into larger problems and investigations by the agency, the district and the FBI.
Emi Johnson, former director of special investigations at the TEA said allegations against the manipulation of student records were brought in by former State Senator Elliot Shapleigh. In May 2010 Shapleigh had alleged that EPISD was “disappearing” students from Bowie High School in an effort to improve their scores on the state mandated test, or the TAKS.
Johnson stated that in his allegations, and data he pulled from the TEA’s website, approximately 381 students from the 2005 cohort had “disappeared.
An initial investigation ensued and Johnson found that the students, based on leaver data – or data that tracks where the students are – the majority of the students were found to either be at other area schools, had returned to Mexico, dropped out or had been classified as another grade level. With such classifications, TEA did not consider the students disappeared and therefore found Shapleigh’s allegations unsubstantiated.
Johnson said TEA looked into Shapleigh’s claims a second time and provided data to the U.S. Department of Education and the FBI when the Texas Senator sent a letter to the government agencies.
Shapleigh’s allegations this time indicated that students were not being allowed to enrolled at Bowie High School.
“The Department of Education asks for me to assume jurisdiction to look into credit courses and attendance associated with leaver data,” Johnson said.
During this second audit of the data by the TEA, Johnson said they found errors that had been made and the status of the students were incorrect.
U.S. District Attorney Debra Kanof asked if these “errors” were only found at Bowie High School.
“No, it was for other campuses as well,” Johnson said. “I remember there were other allegations of truant officers not allowing students to return to school.”
The scope of the investigation however, was centered on Bowie High School and did not go further Johnson added. Findings of that investigation focused on 381 students, their classification and whether they had taken the 10th grade TAKS test.
“It was a narrow scope.”
TEA then provided training to staff at Bowie.
While the TEA was pulling data for the U.S. Department of Education, EPISD was also conducting it’s own internal audit. Upon these findings, Johnson advised her supervisor Ray Glenn. Glenn then spoke to former superintendent Lorenzo Garcia in June of 2010.
During the phone conversation, Johnson said Garcia was instructed to send the audit to TEA, according to testimony from Johnson, James Anderson was placed in charge of the audit to look into irregularities at credit recovery and attendance.
It took EPISD two years to send their internal audit findings to TEA.
The EPISD audit indicated that grades had been improperly changed from a passing grade to nonpassing grades, students were jumped from the 9th to 11th grade, after credits were restored at the end of the year, and students who did not take the TAKS.
James Steinhauser, former Assistant Superintendent of Research, Evaluation, Testing and Planning said he became aware of issues with Austin High School during the Bowie High School investigation.
Steinhauser investigated Shapleigh’s allegations and found irregularities with the number of sophomores enrolled. “I gave that information to Dr. Garcia,” he said.
“And how did he react,” District Attorney Robert Almonte asked.
Steinhauser responded that it appeared that Garcia was already aware of the data and said he would, “look into it.” Nothing further was done, until requests for data for Austin HS came from the FBI.
In 2011 Steinhauser analyzed 289 student transcripts from Austin High School’s 2010 graduating class to see which students were not eligible to graduate because of their attendance. At the time, in order for a student to receive credit, the student had to be present 90 percent of the time. If a student did not comply, credit was not awarded, even if they had a passing grade.
Students who fell between the 75 percent and 89 percent marker had to meet with the principal and adhere to an improvement plan that could include attending tutoring sessions to gain credit.
Students who were present only 75 percent of the time or less, but had passed the course through letter grade had to go through an attendance review committee, or an ARC.
During his investigation, Steinhauser found that several students, who had failing grades were awarded credit. Additionally, failing grades were changed to 70s.
“It surprised me that there were a number of courses where the student didn’t get a grade based on attendance but received the credit,” Steinhauser said. “These were students that had already graduated. And these students had 20 plus absences in most classes.”
Steinhauser said of the 289 students he studied, 34 would not have graduated based on their attendance. He added that if these students had not graduated, Austin High School would not have met their Annual Yearly Progress for accountability purposes.
Further findings included 11,000 changes made to student transcripts.
Documents provided to the court, showed that Austin High School Principal John Tanner had signed off on these credits awarded. However, the documents – signed by Tanner – did not provide a principal’s plan or a review committee.
Changing the Records
Jeanette Halliday, a speech teacher at Austin High School, noticed something was wrong with her students’ attendance records when her personal sign in sheets for class did not match up with the system’s. Halliday, like most high school teachers, had her own method of keeping attendance.
Halliday had the students sign in on a sheet of paper in the classroom before the bell rang. A few moments after the bell rang, Halliday would call out the student names that did not have a signature by them, and would then discover whether the student forgot to sign in or if they were absent.
If a student came in late, she would mark that student as either excused or unexcused tardy, depending on the student’s circumstances.
After taking attendance she would enter it into the TEAMS computer system, a system used to track student attendance with the district. During the 2009-10 school year, she noticed issues with the system – students she had initially marked absent were being changed to present. To correct the system error, Halliday submitted a change of attendance form to the attendance clerk’s office.
“In the Fall of 2009, there were quite a few corrections,” Halliday said. “When the Spring 2010 semester started I began auditing the changes I was making because it was an unusual amount of changes. I noticed that the students that were marked absent on my sheet, were being marked present in the system.”
Halliday kept meticulous records of these changes. She said she would take her sign in sheet, then input the attendance records when she got a moment, then take a screenshot of the initial attendance record she submitted to the TEAMS system. She would then print out that screenshot.
During testimony head attendance clerk Guadalupe Montelongo said she had been given a directive by Tanner to change student absences to present.
Montelongo argued that this was against policy but conceded to Tanner’s directive for fear of losing her job.
“I told him teachers would notice,” Montelongo said quietly.
Within the first week of the Spring 2010 semester, Halliday came to Montelongo and provided her with change of attendance forms and described to her what she had noticed on the computer and how she had gone to the FBI.
Montelongo said all she could do was stare at Ms. Halliday.
“I didn’t say anything because I don’t lie,” Montelongo said. “I went to Dr. Tanner and told him, ‘I told you so.’” Tanner’s directive concerning Halliday was to “leave her attendance alone,” but to continue forward with all the other teachers.
“Did anyone else notice,” Robert Almonte, U.S. District Attorney asked.
“It didn’t seem like it,” Montelongo said.
As the changes continued to occur Halliday said she took her concerns to Tanner.
“Dr. Tanner assured me that these students were on campus and should be marked present and that these students were probably in Mr. Salcido’s office. So, I then asked Mr. Salcido to enter the code into the records to show that they were there.”
Halliday said Salcido did not seem to know what she was talking about and the discrepancies continued to occur.
“I then mentioned to a few of the teachers that they should watch their absences because it was being changed.”
Shortly thereafter, as investigations from the U.S. Department of Education and the FBI were ongoing at Bowie High School, there was a call from the district to contact them or the FBI if they thought anything was suspicious. Halliday said she decided to go to the FBI at that time because media reports showed that the district was under scrutiny.
“The district was already in the paper with many problems,” Halliday said. “And the FBI was not with the district. It just seemed like the logical choice.”
During cross examination Elizabeth Rogers, defense attorney for John Tanner, asked Halliday whether it was normal to have errors during the first week of a semester, as students got used to a new schedule and the location of their classes.
Halliday said it was, but added that during the first day she did not mark anyone tardy for that very reason.
Halliday’s meticulous record keeping later became the subject of ire for Tanner, other witnesses said. Assistant Principal Michael Salcido said improving attendance was a priority.
“He said something to the effect of, ‘We need to do whatever it takes to get attendance up,” Salcido said.
Tanner then issued a directive for Salcido and others to form a task force. The task force was charged with studying student attendance records and seeing who had been absent between the 2nd and 6th class periods.
The 2nd and 6th class periods are periods selected by the state for accountability purposes. The number of absences is tied directly to funding.
Without guidance from Tanner or Central Office, Salcido said he sought guidance from teachers to see how they kept their records. With pressure from Tanner, Salcido directed the attendance clerks to change students absences to present.
Salcido added he did not act alone, and was assisted by Love, Tegmeyer and Thomas. The next step, Salcido said, was to question the students.
“We were to get their attendance records for the last year and determine which students had been absent in 2nd or 6th period. We were to call the students into the office and ask them where they had been during that period. And if a student said they were with the counselor we were to take their word for it.”
Debra Kanof asked whether this was against district policy. Salcido conceded that it was.
In order to change the credits, Salcido sought a form from the district. But there was none in existence that he could find. Then in conversations with Jefferson High School administrators, they supplied him with a form they used to recover credits due to absences, and Salcido used that form instead.
The form was also used to give credit to students a month after they had graduated. A document, presented to the jury shows a student was awarded credit on July 25, 2011. Tanner’s signature was at the bottom.
During the 2010-11 school year, as attendance records were manipulated, Halliday’s insistence to stay true to district and state policy remained a nuisance to Tanner, Salcido said.
Halliday became a subject Tanner would joke about or curse about.
“He would call her a b****, a pain in the a**, problematic and nuts during administrative meetings.”
When asked if he defended Halliday or did anything to stop Tanner; Salcido said he didn’t participate in the name calling, but did laugh along.
After the 2010-11 school year, Salcido said he asked the attendance clerks to stop the practice of changing attendance records. Instead, the practice continued and his responsibilities were given to Mark Philip Tegmeyer.
Salcido was suspended three days by interim superintendent Vernon Butler in Aug. 2013 for creating an illegal form that was not created by the district.
Evenutally there was a ploy to retaliate against Halliday and other teachers who may have spoken to the FBI by reducing their class sizes or showing that there was no need for the courses.
Halliday’s class remained untouched, but autoshop was cancelled and not offered for the 2013-14 school year.
Elizabeth Saucedo began her career as head counselor at Austin in October 2010. With only five years of experience, Saucedo told jurors that while she didn’t think she was qualified for the promotion, she was willing to accept the challenge.
When she arrived at Austin High School, she was not well received by the counselors because she was inexperienced. She first took her concerns to her friend Michael Salcido.
Drama ensued within the counseling department. Tanner then assigned Thomas to oversee the counselors in an effort to ease what was described as “cat brawling, petty fights.” But Thomas’ appointment caused “chaos.”
“She was just…she micromanaged everything. From the time the counselors left to the time they arrived someplace. She was just….overbearing,” Salcido said recalling his conversations with counselors and with Saucedo.
During her testimony Saucedo said she noticed that students, mostly from Mexico, would arrive at Austin High School with enough credits to be sophomores, but their credits were being denied.
She met with Tanner after the registrar refused to classify one student correctly.
“I told him (Tanner) that the student had enough credit for the 10th grade and he told me to leave her in the 9th grade,” Saucedo said. “I then spoke to the student and told her that she would be placed appropriately at the end of the school year.”
Kanof asked what happened with that particular student.
“The following year she was not moved and she dropped out of school,” Saucedo said. Saucedo testified that she was also told not to give students the 1/2 credit of Alegbra they earned from other schools in Mexico.
At this point, Thomas took over as the Assistant Principal that oversaw the counselors. Saucedo described Thomas as someone who yelled at counselors even when parents were in their offices. Then in February 2012, Thomas told Saucedo she wanted to limit enrollment numbers of students in Halliday’s speech class and autoshop.
“She said it was because Halliday was a star witness for the FBI,” Saucedo said.
In documented notes, Thomas suggested classes students could be moved to if they were registered for Halliday’s class. Saucedo was then directed to pass on the information to the other counselors.
“I then went to Ms. Contreras office,” Saucedo said. “I told Michelle Contreras that Diane wanted us to move kids out of speech and that I wasn’t going to do it. Then Diane came by and said she’d tell the counselors.”
Saucedo said she continued to refuse, but the other counselors followed Thomas’ directive.
Later, Thomas told Saucedo to remove kids from auto-shop that had pre-registered for the 2013-14 school year so they could show that there was not a need for the class, and cancel it all together after an incident with instructor Ruben Cordero had resulted in the injury of student Gabriel Rodriguez.
According to previous testimony, Cordero was test driving a truck, and had revved the engine so that students walking from the baseball field back onto the building could move out of the way. One student, Gabriel Rodriguez, did not get out of the way in time. Cordero drove the vehicle out of the corridor it was in, and hit the equipment Rodriguez was holding. The impact of the vehicle caused Rodriguez to then hit the rear view mirror of the vehicle.
When Saucedo questioned these directives, Thomas began to harass her.
“I was scared to be on campus,” Saucedo said.
As the atmosphere at Austin High School worsened counselor Elizabeth Saucedo took her concerns to the Human Resources department at the district, who called Tanner in to discuss her complaint. Tanner then approached Saucedo and accused her of going to the FBI.
Shortly after that accusation from Tanner, Saucedo did go to the FBI, who asked her to record a meeting with Tanner and Thomas. Saucedo agreed.
Saucedo called for a meeting with both Tanner and Thomas in an effort to gain clarification about auto-shop, Speech and address how she was being treated by Thomas and Tanner.
In the recording presented to the court, Thomas sounds agitated and annoyed, while Tanner remains calm at first, but begins to grow frustrated.
Saucedo then states that she wants the yelling from Thomas to stop.
“I’m being harassed,” She tells Tanner and Thomas. “No, really I am.” Saucedo then said she wants to make a fresh start. Tanner agrees. “I feel like that’s how we have to move because I know that there are other people over here and we have increased paranoia,” Tanner said referring to the Bowie High School and Austin High School investigations by the FBI.
During the conversation Thomas tells Saucedo, “I’m so tired of you. You are not doing your part.”
Later Thomas says, “I’m just to angry and frustrated at this person (Saucedo),” and leaves the office. Tanner stays with Saucedo and explains why auto-shop is canceled for the 2013-14 school year.
“I can’t be stressed out more than I already am,” Tanner said after explaining the issue with Cordero.
“How can I have that happen on my campus?” Tanner said, his voice rising. “I took that to employee relations and they f****** lost the paperwork. And God D***** if the students want to take autoshop it will not be on my campus. They can go to CCTE. This is a man who allowed kids to stay in class because they didn’t want to go to math class.”
As for Halliday’s speech class, Tanner said it was a nonissue as her class had been reassigned for the following school year. But then he continued to disparage Halliday, stating that she was a “horrible teacher” and called her a “F***** b*****.” Tanner added that he became aware that Halliday went to the FBI because Central Office had told him.
Halliday, who remained in the court room after her testimony throughout the trial, quietly listened. Tanner continued to speak with Saucedo in tangents and later about Thomas. Tanner, at one point said there was a “good Diane and a difficult Diane,” and he spoke about other counselors and staff. Eventually Tanner expressed his frustration about the investigation by district and the FBI that revealed wrongdoing in reference to student credits.
“We got f*****,” Tanner said. “There is enough that happened…that after everything is said and done what did I do wrong? Because I still don’t know. I feel like however it’s portrayed….and it’s a very strange thing to know that someone is after you.
Throughout the conversation Saucedo repeats, “I just want to start with a clean slate.”
Tanner ends the conversation calmly and said he would talk to Thomas about getting there and improving relations with Saucedo. Tanner was removed from Austin High School in April 2013, and reinstated after students protest. Then in August 2013, Tanner is removed from the campus again for alleged retaliation.
The trial will go into its third week on Monday.