Testimony from the school records secretary at the center of a grade tampering scandal that erupted in 2016 pointed to lax oversight by Shelby County Schools.
The Memphis district defended firing Shirley Quinn, the secretary who worked at Trezevant High School for more than two decades, for allegedly changing grades without authorization.
The investigation was prompted after incoming Trezevant High principal Ronnie Mackin reviewed report cards and transcripts to make sure students were on track to graduate. He saw some discrepancies and turned over his observations to district officials. Quinn’s case focuses on the nine days after he turned in those documents and her termination.
During an emotional, daylong testimony in her gender discrimination lawsuit against the district, Quinn described a system that did not encourage her to follow rules to prevent grade tampering, but instead wanted her to make sure transcripts did not contain mathematical or factual errors.
“They would tell us every year, ‘Make sure that your transcript was correct. Don’t send them out with an error you can see. Clean up your transcripts.’ That’s what we were told,” Her testimony suggested lax oversight by a district that was more worried about its public image than grade tampering.
For example, if a 70% final grade appeared on a student’s transcript, but the other grades used to calculate that average were lower, Quinn said the district urged records secretaries to keep the 70% and change the other grades.
She said forms to change grades existed, but she was never told they were required, and teachers rarely used them.
“We didn’t have to have paperwork,” she said, explaining that no one expected her to fill out a form to verify or justify a grade change.
Quinn, who has been unemployed and testified to receiving disability payments since she was fired in 2016, is seeking $300,000 in damages. She earned about $27,500 annually as the high school’s records secretary. She and former teacher and football coach Teli White were the only Trezevant employees fired after investigations were complete.
Circuit Court Judge Felicia Corbin-Johnson is presiding over the case that is expected to end with closing arguments Monday afternoon. Corbin-Johnson suggested Friday that the two sides try to settle the case through a mediator rather than receive a court order — a sign that the district may be having a harder time than anticipated defending its actions.
The district’s attorney asked Corbin-Johnson to dismiss the lawsuit before he presented the district’s defense. But she refused and said Quinn, “is the best witness I have had in this court as far as consistency, the quality of testimony, as far as directness and her candor. I have not seen a better witness — even an expert witness.”
Corbin-Johnson also questioned the thoroughness of the district’s short-lived internal investigation, which served as a basis of Quinn’s termination. Months later during the external probe, investigators found several versions of a football student’s transcript on Teli White’s computer that progressively showed higher grade point averages as some grades were altered. White was fired after the external investigation.
“I have heard no evidence that she [Quinn] did anything other than what she had been directed to do and what had been the policy and custom of the school,” Corbin-Johnson said. “If the school board really wanted to get to the bottom of this, it seems like there would have been a lot more people called down during the investigation.”
District officials testified that grade changes using Quinn’s district login credentials did not contain documentation to verify the changes. Quinn said she would routinely change grades if the student’s teacher asked her to. Sometimes changes were made because of makeup work or data entry errors, but she never questioned the teachers or asked for documentation.
“I struggled on a Memphis City Schools salary to put my children through college. If I had that power, why didn’t I do that for my own children?” Quinn said of improperly changing grades for her two daughters who graduated from Trezevant High. “I always had the teacher of record right there before I would change the grade… The teacher was my documentation.”
But the district said if that reasoning was sufficient, the district’s student information system (known as SMS) would give a teacher clearance to go into the system and change the grade on their own.
“If a teacher was not given the right to change the grade in SMS, why would you go in there and do it for them?” said Rodney Moore, the lawyer defending the district. “Would that suggest to you it required more [verification]?”
District employees interviewed during multiple grade changing investigations said they knew about a grade change form but either didn’t know the procedure or assumed the practice stopped when the former Memphis city district merged with its suburban counterpart in 2013.
That’s why district officials, including now Superintendent Joris Ray, said more training was needed before holding more people accountable after the wider investigation ended last year.
That sentiment was echoed by Corbin-Johnson in court: “How do you hold someone accountable to a policy if you don’t enforce it?”
To litigate Quinn’s case, Shelby County Schools hired Moore, the former chief lawyer for the district when the scandal broke out three years ago. Moore left the school system in early 2018 for Ogletree Deakins, one of the law firms hired to investigate the ordeal in 2017. He resigned about two months after those investigators publicly released their findings detailing a “pervasive culture” of improper grade changes at Trezevant, where at least 53 students graduated without earning the necessary credits.
Since the grading scandal emerged, legislators made improper changes to student transcripts a criminal offense under state law. The district limited the number of people authorized to make grade changes to two, instituted new training, hired grading system monitors, and created an electronic grade change form, among other changes. A grade modification policy proposed as a result of a failed investigation last year into possible fraudulent grade changes at other high schools has still not been voted on.
“We’re actually going above and beyond what other school systems would do. I’m certain of that,” said Bill White, who oversees training and enforcement for student information.