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Charter school gets judge to gag the Loaf

More former Crossroads employees support claims of grade fixing

In a stunning infringement of basic First Amendment rights, a judge has issued a temporary restraining order barring Creative Loafing from disclosing information given to us by former teachers at Crossroads Charter High School. This gag order followed a story in last week's CL, "Automatic Diplomas?", regarding charges by some teachers at Crossroads that students' grades were fixed to allow them to graduate. The restraining order, signed by Chief District Court Judge Yvonne Mims Evans, orders the paper to refrain from disclosing any information contained in evidence provided by three math teachers who taught at the school. It also orders the three teachers to refrain from sharing the information. CL is in the process of appealing the restraining order. The suit, which was filed by Crossroads' attorney James Conrad, refers to the evidence the teachers turned over to CL as "stolen."

Creative Loafing editor John Grooms said, "This restraining order is nonsense. We did not disclose any individual's information from the evidence provided us by the three teachers. We also deliberately did not name any of the students involved -- the students aren't the problem here. According to the teachers involved, the way the school has been run is the problem. The records in question were brought to us, unasked for; in other words, we obtained them lawfully. Maybe Judge Evans just isn't familiar with the Bill of Rights."

Creative Loafing, Inc. Senior Vice President Neil Skene added, "The people who sought this order and the judge who issued it didn't give even a passing reference to the First Amendment's freedom of the press. Maybe they haven't heard of the uninterrupted stream of cases rejecting the use of censorship of American newspapers. The US Supreme Court has set clear and very narrow standards for those who want to censor public speech, and these people were utterly heedless of those standards. Creative Loafing acted with integrity and violated no laws in the pursuit or publication of the story. The lawless behavior is by the judge who ignored all the case law limiting prior restraint. The school's attempt at censorship is obviously an effort to cut off criticism of the administration of the school. We wish the school instead would teach its students a lesson about the First Amendment and free debate about public issues, but I guess we'll have to do that job for them."

After last week's story was printed in CL, Conrad and school administrators demanded the return of any documents we may have received from the teachers, and any copies of those documents. Afterward, they launched a letter campaign to convince CL advertisers to stop advertising in the paper. So far, no advertisers have jumped ship.

Conrad, who claimed that the three teachers doctored the students' grades to embarrass the school, told CL that he would furnish evidence by Friday of last week that students' grades had not been changed by the school. Instead, he showed up for a meeting with this reporter with copies of the restraining order, and warned her that she could be jailed if the paper printed anything further about grade fixing at the school or failed to turn over the alleged evidence of grade fixing furnished by the former Crossroads teachers.

Conrad then followed the reporter into the lobby of WBT-1110 radio, where she was scheduled to go on the air; he then attempted to convince a station employee to bar the reporter from the air or from discussing Crossroads' situation on the air or he would add WBT to the suit. Last week, former Crossroads teachers Joel Silver, Dr. Herbert Moore and Alvin Abrams asked politicians and the state and federal education departments to investigate their claims that about a third of the school's graduating class failed math, and likely other subjects as well, but were handed their high school diplomas anyway. Because charter schools are public schools whose charters are awarded by the state and whose affairs are governed not by a superintendent or elected school board but by a board of volunteer citizens, the teachers say they have virtually no one to take their complaints to other than the media.

Over the past weekend, three more former Crossroads employees came forward to support the claims of the three math teachers.

Angelique Newton, a special education teacher who resigned from the school in February, says it was made clear to her and other teachers by school principal Tara Anderson that seniors were to receive passing grades, no matter how they actually did in their classes. Newton says that she and others at the school were aware that grades were being changed.

In an interview before our original story, Conrad acknowledged that some of the students were failing math, but said that they did make-up work in the fourth quarter of the school year that allowed them to graduate. But Newton says that by the fourth quarter, the majority of the staff at Crossroads had either been fired or had resigned and students weren't receiving instruction in all their classes because there simply weren't enough teachers to do it.

"They wouldn't pay for substitute teachers," said Newton. "Once all these teachers got fired or resigned, you had to do something with the kids all day. If you don't have many teachers left by the last quarter, you have to do something about the students' grades." CL could not confirm these statements by Newton by press time, and principal Tara Anderson and attorney Janes Conrad did not return our phone calls.

Newton said that there was little or no instruction going on in other classes she sat in on, like English, where she says worksheets were handed to the kids everyday. Newton also says that many students had accrued so many absences that they shouldn't have been allowed to graduate. She estimates at least 50 percent of the 25-member graduating class shouldn't have received their diplomas because they failed at least one class. Newton says she believes other students in the lower grades were passed who shouldn't have been.

A woman who worked in the school's front office and who said her duties included entering students' grades into the system for their report cards, also says she saw evidence that grades were being changed. She asked that her name not be used because she says she is currently in litigation with the school.

"I had access to the computer to make transcripts for the children," she says. "We would run grades periodically through the week. I know a Spanish teacher who had failed some students for not coming to class and those grades were changed. Some of the students she failed went on to graduate."

Many of the students failed all three quarters, she says. "If you failed three quarters, how can make-up work make you pass?"

The woman says she also logged tardies and absences, and claims that on any given day as many as 25 of the approximately 150 students who attended the school didn't show up or didn't actually go to class. Discipline problems and arrests were common at the school, she says, and on a few occasions teachers were assaulted.

"We had six drama teachers in a matter of four months," she says. "We had a lot of students that people did not want. The ideal was good, of having kids, the worst of the worst, to go in and get caught up. But it wasn't well thought out."

Like so many at the school, the woman says she was eventually fired.

"I was fired for not doing my job," she says, "but I had never been written up. I think I was fired for not going along with the flow. I would question things. If you questioned the administration, there were backlashes."

School testing coordinator Michael Geter, who was also fired, says that the school had no formal policy for firing people and never wrote him up, gave him a formal hearing, or sent him a termination letter.

"Almost the entire staff left or were fired," said Geter. "They were just terminating people left and right. I thought before you were fired you would have a hearing with a board."

Geter says he suspects that the school had no formal policy for firing them since, at the time he was fired in March, the school had no policy and procedure manual to govern how the school would be run. Geter said he was helping Anderson author one when he was fired.

Geter was in charge of organizing the kids' transcripts and making sure they had taken state tests that would have allowed them to pass on to the next grade. He says the school did not have complete transcripts for some of the children and that he had not straightened out the mess by the time he was fired.

"They were looking to graduate and my biggest thing was that I didn't know if the kids needed to have certain tests required by the state," said Geter. "In reality, they may not have had the test or passed a test needed for graduation."

But grades and transcripts aren't the only issue teachers and school employees have with the school. Several of the teachers say they are planning a class action suit against the school to recoup money they say they are owed. Typically, teachers are paid their yearly salary in installments during the months of the year in which they work. But to help stretch the school's meager budget, teachers say they agreed to take their salary payments over a 12-month period rather than a 10-month period. But after they were fired or resigned, they claim they weren't reimbursed the full total they were owed for the months they had worked. Newton, Silver, Moore and Abrams estimate the school owes them up to $3,000 each. Geter says he didn't receive the money in his 401K account when he was terminated. And they all claim that the school received a grant that was supposed to be used to reimburse them for taking teaching classes, but that those who took those classes were never reimbursed.

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