By Jerry Bohnen, special to The City Sentinel
Allegations of grade changing and attendance record manipulation against the principal of the Douglass High School prompted a criminal investigation by the U.S. Department of Education, a probe that began earlier this year.
At least one investigator from the regional office of the Department of Education based in Dallas, Texas spent time this past summer interviewing the teachers who had been fired by Principal Brian Staples. Those same teachers and their supporters have been demonstrating daily in front of the high school. This reporter, for The City Sentinel, has been investigating the situation for several weeks.
This week, Karl Springer, OKCPS Superintendent, said, “The district investigation is ongoing. We are fully cooperating with the United States Department of Education.” Springer’s statement was issued at the request of News9, the CBS affiliate which is also investigating the controversy.
Special Agent Michelle L. Bouziden, based in Dallas with the Inspector General’s division of the Education Department, would neither confirm nor deny that she was investigating the allegations raised by the teachers. “We usually don’t give out a whole lot of information,” she explained when asked about the probe. Bouziden referred inquiries to Katherine Grant, a spokeswoman for the Education Department in Washington, D.C. “Per our policy, we don’t confirm nor deny. We can only discuss our completed work,” said Grant.
Bouziden’s name was provided by some of the former teachers who explained they each spent from an hour to two hours with Bouziden as she questioned them about their allegations made against Staples. “She told us there could be criminal charges if they found something wrong,” said Marcia Muhammad, the former Assistant Principal of Douglass High School. “She felt like we had some legitimate complaints.”
Muhammad added that Bouziden referred her to what happened to the school superintendent in El Paso, Texas as an indication how serious the government is taking the allegations in Oklahoma City. It was in June when former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia, 56, pleaded guilty to schemes to defraud the El Paso Independent School District and the federal government out of thousands of dollars.
One of the charges was mail fraud in which Garcia had directed staffers to manipulate state and federal mandated annual reporting statistics in order to keep EPISD compliant with requirements of No Children Left Behind Act. Federal prosecutors claimed the manipulation allowed Garcia to receive $54,000 in bonuses. He is to be sentenced this month.
The federal investigation into the Oklahoma City school district started when Muhammad first contacted the U.S. Education department regional office in Kansas City, Missouri. Officials there referred the matter to the Dallas office because it concerned alleged criminal wrongdoing. She sent articles, affidavits and documentation to the Inspector General in Washington, D.C. “In less than 12 hours she e–mailed me back,” said Muhammad in an email response to this reporter. Two weeks later, Special Agent Bouziden arrived in Oklahoma City and spent two days interviewing some of the fired teachers.
Bouziden’s investigation comes as the School District is preparing a final report on the allegations. The district hired Annita Bridges, of Litigation Alternatives, Inc. to carry out an investigation and make a report. The district originally had planned for the report to be issued by the end of August but the release of the report has been delayed. In an email to Marcia Muhammad, Bridges explained her role is as an impartial and neutral fact-finder. “As a mediator and administrative law judge, my background and experience is in discerning the facts in a dispute in a fair and unbiased manner.” She has previously served as a hearing officer for the Oklahoma City Public School District and the State School Board.
Several teachers who were fired in 2010 and 2011 claim Staples raised grades on students they had either given Fs or Ds, and ignored absences on the student records. The District has stated Staples is not commenting about the allegations. The fired teachers claim Staples took the steps to keep Douglass off a state list of schools needing improvements of student performances.
Note: Jerry Bohnen, an award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster, reports occasionally for The City Sentinel.