Feds Indict 5 El Paso ISD Educators in Test Score Fraud Scheme

Public School Protest Sign
AP/Matt Rourke

The FBI arrested five veteran Texas educators, all present or past employees of the El Paso Independent School District, after a federal grand jury indicted them on fraud charges Wednesday. They stand accused of their involvement in a test-cheating  scheme to circumvent federal accountability requirements under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act.

Breitbart Texas obtained the six-count indictment that chronicles the time between February 2006 to September 2013, revealing how the defendants allegedly plotted to rig the system through elaborate schemes where they purportedly manipulated reporting Average Yearly Progress (AYP) data and falsified school records so that El Paso ISD appeared compliant with the U.S. Education Department’s (USED) NCLB requirements.

The five defendants indicted are Damon Murphy, former El Paso ISD associate superintendent. He is charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., conspiracy to commit mail fraud, and one count of mail fraud. John Tanner, a former principal at the district’s Austin High School, was charged with conspiracy to defraud the U.S., conspiracy to commit mail front, one count of mail fraud, and conspiracy to retaliate against a witness. Mark Tegmeyer, former Austin High assistant principal, faces conspiracy to defraud the U.S., conspiracy to commit mail fraud, one count of mail fraud, and conspiracy to retaliate against a witness. Nancy Love, former assistant principal of discipline and attendance at Austin High, was charged with conspiracy to retaliate against a witness and making a false declaration before a grand jury. She is the only defendant still employed by El Paso ISD, serving as the assistant principal at a magnet high school.

The defendants bonded out of jail  Thursday, according to the El Paso Times, which named a sixth El Paso ISD administrator, James Anderson, former assistant superintendent for secondary education. His indictment remains sealed and he has not surrender to authorities. The El Paso newspaper recounted a 2012 interview with Anderson, insisting he tried to report the internal cheating but claimed former Education Commissioner (Robert) Scott and other Texas Education Agency (TEA) officials hindered his June 2010 requests to investigate grade-level manipulations that may have artificially boosted one campus’ Average Yearly Progress (AYP).

AYP measured student English Language Arts/Reading and math testing performance, attendance, and graduation rates. Success meant 95 percent of students tested met minimum annual targets in these areas. The scheme intended to disguise that certain El Paso ISD campuses were failing based on AYP. Schools and districts that did not meet or exceed AYP standards and continued to “need improvement” or fail at the end of five years, could face sanctions, state takeover, closure, reconstitution or even, repurposing into public charter schools.

According to the indictment, the defendants allegedly submitted fraudulent AYP data to the TEA and USED to make it appear as though El Paso ISD met or exceeded its goals. In the 2008-09 school year, Murphy and unnamed others allegedly gave principals “marching orders” to “put up barriers” to prevent 9th grade Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students and others they believed would struggle with the state’s 10th grade administered test from “going onto 10th grade.” That test was the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS).

The indictment alleged Murphy and others implemented a strategy using partial course credits for 10th grade to reclassify and promote held back and LEP students (which included students who came from Mexico) who would completely circumvent taking the mandated TAKS test by moving from 9th to 11th grade.

Throughout the 2009-10 school year, the indictment also alleged that Tanner, aided by Tegmeyer, directed an Austin High School administrator to change previously properly marked absences of students to make it appear as if a student was present on days designated by the state to measure attendance rate. These actions caused approximately 11,000 fraudulent entries on student absences.

The indictment also alleged Tegmeyer instructed an Austin High employee to withdraw students from the school without the students’ parents consent or notification. This was done in violation of the school district’s policy and, purportedly, when the employee refused to do so without a written directive, the employee was ordered to “just drop them” to benefit the district’s compliance requirements. One Austin High administrator was allegedly told to “make the attendance happen, no matter what it takes,” and to “target the second and sixth period.”

The indictment also alleged Love made a false statement during a September 26, 2013 grand jury hearing; and it detailed the actions of those defendants who resorted to intimidation tactics against employees to maintain the scheme, alleging that Tanner, Tegmeyer, Thomas, and Love conspired with one another to harm the personal and professional reputations of two El Paso ISD teachers, essentially to get them fired, for providing truthful information to FBI agents.

In a statement, U.S. Attorney Richard L. Durbin, Jr., said: “This indictment makes serious allegations that school officials manipulated and falsified crucial information about students to evade and defeat federal education standards.  It is of the greatest importance to the community that these officials be called to account in order to maintain public confidence in the education system.”

In 2012, El Paso ISD’s former superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pleaded guilty to federal charges of conspiracy to defraud the TEA and USED by allegedly rigging the results of the annual TAKS standardized test through a number of methods, including who did not take it, to boost results.

In 2014, Breitbart Texas reported the TEA took action against 11 El Paso ISD employees over this cheating scheme, allegedly masterminded by Garcia, who earlier in his career served Dallas ISD as deputy superintendent of instructional services and as the district’s 2004 interim superintendent.

The five defendants await trial. If convicted, they face hefty prison sentences. Conspiracy to defraud the federal government carries up to five years in federal prison; conspiracy to commit mail fraud, up to 20 years; conspiracy to retaliate against a witness, up to 10 years; false declaration before the Grand Jury, and making a false statement to a federal agent, both carry up to five years in federal prison.

“These newly charged EPISD administrators engaged in criminal conduct and brazen efforts to manipulate testing populations, graduation rates, and attendance figures. The message should be loud and clear that the FBI, American people, and citizens of El Paso will not tolerate the manipulation and corruption of our public educational system,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Douglas E. Lindquist, El Paso Division. “The involved teachers and administrators were trusted with educating and looking out for the best interests of students, as opposed to spending countless hours scheming and devising ways to defraud educational standards.”

This investigation remains ongoing, according to FBI Special Agent in Charge Keith Byers, who spoke with reporters after the hearing Wednesday and said the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the FBI will continue to investigate this matter to its logical conclusion.

Follow Merrill Hope on Twitter @OutOfTheBoxMom.


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