Disciplinary recommendations in 2015 investigation of Wright Elementary instructor not observed by school district
State Attorney Bill Eddins said Tuesday he intends to have a grand jury focus on how the Okaloosa County School District has handled complaints lodged against its employees.
The district’s treatment of one 2016 complaint, filed against Kenwood Elementary pre-K special education instructor Marlynn Stillions, has come under a great deal of scrutiny and served to initiate the wider investigation undertaken by Eddins’ office.
Eddins could not comment Wednesday when asked whether evidence of other cases being mishandled had been uncovered during an ongoing State Attorney’s Office criminal investigation.
But former school district investigator Arden Farley claims other cases were similarly mishandled on Superintendent Mary Beth Jackson’s watch, including one that involved a teacher caught helping students cheat on an assessment test.
Records received by the Northwest Florida Daily News late Monday afternoon confirmed that in 2015 Wright Elementary teacher Deborah Cross was found through a Farley investigation to have coached fifth-graders to correct answers they’d gotten wrong on a Discovery Education Assessment reading test.
Jackson responded in an email to a question from the Daily News about the case on Wednesday, stating:
“Following the investigation of Mrs. Deborah Cross, the district identified additional issues with the DEA testing, which included computer delays and issues with inadequate training for teachers in the test administration. As a result, an updated DEA Administration and Security Agreement for teachers was developed and implemented for the new DEA testing beginning in fall, 2015.”
State officials confirmed the Cross case was never sent to the Florida Department of Education’s division of Professional Practices for review, as Farley had recommended. In addition, no discipline was administered at the district level and the ethics training recommended by Farley was never provided to Cross.
Proctor, students report cheating
The report compiled by Farley consisted of interviews with a testing proctor, who was in the room with Cross when she administered the test in question on May 11, 2015, and two students who took the test.
The proctor testified that she saw Cross writing numbers on Post-it Notes and handing them to students.
At one point, according to Farley’s report, the proctor overheard Cross tell a student “these are wrong — check them.”
“One student raised his hand and (the proctor) asked him if he had a question,” the report said. “The student had a white note with numbers on it. The student said ‘She (referring to Teacher Cross) told me 27 was wrong.’ ”
A fifth-grader interviewed told the investigator Cross had advised him or her to “go back and see if I can redo some” test questions. “She told me to go back and fix them.”
The student further testified that he or she had gone back and “fixed the ones I got wrong.”
Another student testified Cross had advised him or her to go back and “redo some” test answers. “She told me I had finished them, but I didn’t get it right,” the child told the investigator.
Cross, who could not be reached for comment on this article, told Farley during the investigation into her actions that computer issues were causing some student answers to show up on a report as unanswered.
“I was afraid the unanswered questions would affect their final results,” she said in a statement to Farley.
In her statement, Cross said, “I did not give any answers at any time to any students during the test … I told certain students to go back and correct the unanswered questions.”
Asked about the student’s testimony regarding question 27, Cross told Farley she had informed the student “27 needed to be fixed.” Cross then stated “she may have used the wrong word” and informed the student the answer was wrong.
More teachers cheating?
Farley noted at the end of his report, while discussing the investigation with Cross, he came to understand from her comments “that Respondent Cross indicated a lot of teachers help their students.”
Farley asked for names of the teachers that help students.
“Respondent Cross stated to Investigator Farley that she couldn’t give him names because she didn’t want to throw anyone under the bus.”
Farley’s investigation was conducted to determine whether Cross violated a signed security agreement regarding DEA testing. The agreement states, in part, “no assistance or prompting may be provided to any specific student which would aid that student in obtaining an answer.”
The security agreement is the same one Jackson referred to in her memo clearing Cross as having been "updated."
Farley was also investigating to find if a school district ethics violation had occurred, specifically one requiring educators to “maintain honesty in all professional dealings.”
In the conclusion of his report, Farley wrote:
“There is sufficient evidence to confirm Respondent Deborah Cross violated the Security Test Agreement and School Board Policy 8-9 during her administration of the morning DEA Reading test on May 11, 2015 at Wright Elementary School.”
He recommended disciplinary action by the school district, training on the Code of Ethics and Principles of Professional Conduct for Educators and requested that the case be referred to the Florida Department of Education Office of Professional Practices for review and/or action.
An Okaloosa County teachers’ union representative present during portions of the investigation claimed, based on the way testing is administered in the school district, “a teacher couldn’t tell if a student got the right or wrong question.”
A testing analyst refuted that argument, Farley’s investigative report said, by stating “a teacher can tell if a student got the right or wrong answer.”
Upon reviewing the findings of Farley’s investigation, Cross stated that were it not for computer glitches on the day the testing was conducted, “none of the events regarding testing of the students would have occurred.”
Further questions posed to Jackson concerning the Cross case were not answered with the superintendent citing the State Attorney's Office current active investigation.