“I CAN NOT and WILL NOT continue to work in an environment that covers up gross negligence among multiple Principals and Senior and Junior District Level supervisors who participate in sexual relationships with teachers/employees/support staff whom they supervise, which directly violates Tennessee law and requires revocation of their license and termination from supervisory positions. This is a common and accepted practice.”
With its headquarters located in The Home of the Blues, the Shelby County Schools system has been singing the blues lately, and for good reason.
It was back in June of 2017, when the trouble really kick-started. Trezevant High School principal, Ronnie Mackin, released a head-turning, six-page resignation letter in which he outlined a series of complaints against Shelby County Schools, including, among other things:
- grade-changing (which a three-lawyer panel investigation proved to be systemic);
- sexual improprieties between faculty, staff, and district supervisors (an issue reported in another area high school as well);
- breaches in security at the school (one incident was later uncovered on surveillance footage);
- racist conduct by school system administrators, supervisors, and other district officials;
- financial mishandlings and possible theft of school funds (SCS later opened a separate investigation into this matter);
- and pay-to-play for certain athletes.
Mackin closed his resignation letter with a series of powerful declarations, several of which I have included throughout this article in italicized form.
Back in August of 2016, Principal Mackin – brand new to Trezevant High School – approached Shelby County Schools (SCS) district leadership after uncovering wide-spread grade-changes. Students’ report cards did not align with their official transcripts.
Some students’ grades were changed from failing to passing, while others received credit for courses not taken. This, according to Mackin, put 121 out of 145 seniors at risk of not graduating.
“I CAN NOT and WILL NOT continue to work in an environment where it is common knowledge that certain schools have cheated to attain “other than normal” achievement gains.”
Trezevant High School’s 2015-2016 graduation rate was 49%, which improved 16% in the 2014-15 school year which remains well-under district, state, and national averages.
As Mackin later elucidated, “Changing grades from failing to passing, artificially raising graduation rates, and falsifying college transcripts have become part of a big business,” noting the compensation structure within the school system which are “based on a mythical system of accountability,” and which ultimately encourage unethical behavior.
An internal district investigation by Shelby County Schools was begun.
“I CAN NOT and WILL NOT continue to work in an environment that promotes dishonesty, fraud, and misrepresentations of academic progress in order to promote athletic success.”
Because a large number of the grade-changes effected football players, Trezevant’s football team was forced to forfeit all games until the investigation had been completed, which prompted protests from students.
The Trezevant High School football team won the state championship the prior school year.
Over the course of the remaining school year, Principal Mackin’s car was vandalized with racist language (“white boy b**** a**”), and a whisper campaign against him ensued within the community, which according to Mackin’s resignation letter, was instigated by several SCS district officials.
Such incidents included:
- the implication the Mackin, as a white man, was culturally illiterate and ineffective at his post;
- a voicemail on a parent’s phone by Mackin’s supervisor encouraging that parent to seek legal action against Mackin “under false pretenses”;
- and district officials instigating parents to perform a background check on Mackin (which ultimately found nothing).
“I CAN NOT and WILL NOT continue to work in an environment where district level supervisors are not only allowed to bully and harass school level Principals, Teachers, and Support Staff, they are encouraged.”
The district’s internal investigation had concluded in October of 2016:
“We have identified 131 students currently enrolled in the district whose transcripts were altered by a staff member of Trezevant . . . All these students were previously enrolled at Trezevant at some point during their time in high school. 92 of these students are still enrolled at Trezevant, 44 of whom are seniors. The remaining 39 (of the 131) are now enrolled in 22 different high schools. Of these 39 students, 15 are seniors. (Other schools will be contacted as needed.)”
Shelby County Schools maintained the stance that the grading discrepancies were isolated to Trezevant High School. The school secretary was fired and the head football coach was suspended for 5 days.
The incident was settled and swept aside.
But not for Ronnie Mackin.
“I CAN NOT and WILL NOT continue to work in an environment that allows District Leadership to collude, interfere, and influence DUE PROCESS in order to protect employees tied by long standing acquaintance, sexual relationships, and fraternal/sorority affiliations from being disciplined fairly and according to policy.”
After Mackin’s fiery resignation letter was made public, a full 10 months after he had first uncovered and reported the grading discrepancies to the school district, SCS appointed a panel of lawyers to investigate the incident.
Now, the panel’s findings have been released, and the picture painted by the findings is bleak.
As the Commercial Appeal reported:
“At least 53 students graduated from Trezevant without earning their diplomas, according to findings from the report released Tuesday. That increased the graduation rate 14 percent over a four-year period from 2012-2016. During that time, 461 grades at that school were changed from failing to passing.
Kirby High had 582 failing grades changed to passing grades.
After Trezevant, Raleigh-Egypt High had 429 such changes.”
The report called for even further investigations, indicating Trezevant was merely the tip of the iceberg; a recommendation which the SCS board subsequently encouraged. Eight different schools are now undergoing audits.
The state Department of Education also urged the district to investigate further, ordering expansive audits for all Shelby County Schools for the next three years.
In addition, the State has requested the names of all who were involved in altering students’ grades.
“The Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury’s office is investigating Trezevant at the request of Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich. Those investigators have the freedom to expand their investigation as necessary,” the Commercial Appeal reported.
Shelby County Schools accreditation is even on the line. As Fox 13 Memphis reported, it’s the damning findings found in the panel’s report “that now has AdvancED, the agency that issues and oversees important school accreditations, wondering what’s going on inside SCS?”
The board has also moved to fire Trezevant’s head football coach, who had since been moved to a different area high school.
In a January op-ed in the Commercial Appeal, Mackin put the practice of grade-changing into full perspective:
“Students have become commodities (priced at around $11,500 per student) to some educators who are willing to promote them and get them out of school in hopes for big returns in the future.
This is child exploitation and abuse.”
“I CAN NOT and WILL NOT continue to work in an environment where students are the last priority…”
Had it not been for the actions of one brave (and royally ticked off) principal, a man who chose to sacrifice his own 19-year long career for the betterment of our community’s youths and who has continued to speak out, the improprieties within the school system would have never been uncovered, nor addressed.
We may never find out the degree of rot within the adult culture of Shelby County Schools, or just how many bad actors we have employed.
It has only been a few years since Memphis schools were rocked by a teacher licensing-exam “cheating ring” that spanned three states. The mastermind was a 23-year employee, having served as a teacher, an assistant principal and a guidance counselor for the school system. Multiples teacher were indicted.
Dorsey Hopson, who serves as the superintendent of Shelby County Schools, said at the time, “It would be unfair to let what may be 50, 60 or 100 teachers who did some wrong stain the good work of the large number of teachers and administrators who get up every day and go by the book.”
Sadly, there is one thing of which we can be certain: where there is one bad actor, there are many.
Fallen apples don’t rot far from the tree.