AUSTIN, July 11 - Former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh says El Paso ISD’s ‘disappeared’ students scandal is bigger than the inflated test scores scandal in Atlanta, Georgia.
“Over in Atlanta teachers leaned over and told kids to change answers to raise their test scores. But, the next day the kids were still in the school,” Shapleigh said. “Here in El Paso a superintendent ‘disappeared’ hundreds of kids, right out of class and in many cases right out of the district. That is a national scandal. It should never happen in America.”
Shapleigh is hosting a town hall meeting at El Paso Community College’s Valle Verde Campus tonight, starting at 5:30. He said he is holding the meeting so that parents and teachers can “connect the dots” on what happened at EPISD, take remedial action and start to reclaim their school district.
“Here in El Paso, a perverse strain of No Child Left Behind put a bounty on children’s heads with federal money and former Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia used it to ‘disappear’ our kids,” Shapleigh said.
“A handful of shamefully ambitious administrators disappeared children from classrooms to report gains on TAKS tests and then claimed bonuses. Our children were taught to cheat not compete.”
Shapleigh is hoping for a turnout of at least 500 people at the town hall meeting because the community is very angry. Events at the school district have been headline news for weeks, ever since former EPISD Superintendent Lorenzo Garcia pleaded guilty to two charges of mail fraud. One of the charges involves the ‘disappeared’ student scheme and other relates to a $450,000 no-bid contract he engineered for his mistress. Garcia will be sentenced on Sept. 14.
“Much of the information about the corruption has come out in bits and pieces. We want to put the big picture out there and ask what the public wants to do,” Shapleigh said. “I want to walk into the audience and tell the parents and teachers to take the reins of their children’s future in their hands. The children are too important. Now is the time to act, to put systems in place to restore great education.”
Shapleigh said he has been investigating a provision in the Local Government Code that allows the public to collect signatures for a petition to remove a county official. A trustee of a school board would fit the description of a county official. The removal can be for incompetence or for failing to carry out a known duty.
Shapleigh pointed out that three of the EPISD trustees chaired the board during Garcia’s tenure as superintendent. Some of the trustees are not up for re-election until 2015, he said. “We want citizen’s action so that children do not have to wait 500 days for help. The school board should have been fully aware of what was happening. They asked for an internal audit, Garcia hid it, and they did nothing. You have a set of trustees who have not done their jobs.”
Javier Diaz, a retired teacher, test coordinator and counselor, worked for EPISD for 47 years before retiring in 2005. Diaz said he would be attending Shapleigh’s town hall meeting. “I am very hurt and disappointed. When I was at the school district there were good administrators that worked hard. When I was a Crockett it was one of the top schools in Texas. Lorenzo Garcia came to El Paso and messed everything up. He had his own agenda. He was like a patron. The kids were swept out, the parents, they wonder how it happened,” Diaz told the Guardian.
Shapleigh explained how the ‘disappeared’ student scheme worked. Prior to the start of the school year, students who were not likely to pass TAKS were reclassified to as to remove them from their class cohort. Under No Child Left Behind, class cohorts are the key to testing as all classes and categories of students in a class cohort must pass with basic minimum scores in order to avoid imposition of sanctions. Shapleigh said the “iconic” high school for Mexican Americans in El Paso, Bowie, was one of the schools facing stiff sanctions if TAKS test scores did not improve.
Shapleigh said keeping class cohorts together is an important part of No Child Left Behind and quality education because research shows that students stay at grade are much more likely to graduate and succeed.
Shapleigh said certain targeted students were kept back in the 9th grade so they would not take the TAKS test in the spring semester of their sophomore year. Other targeted students, he said, were moved from 9th grade to 11th grade in order to avoid the 10th grade TAKS.
Shapleigh collated all of this information from administrators, teachers and parents who would come to his senatorial office in El Paso and inform him of the horror stories going on at the school district. He said during TAKS week, squads of truant officers were dispatched to tell targeted students to stay away from school on TAKS days. “One of the truant officers refused to participate. There were plenty of local heroes in this deal,” Shapleigh said.
Shapleigh played a key role in the FBI investigation of EPISD. He wrote a letter of complaint to Garcia in May, 2010. When that garnered no response he sent an extensive notebook to 25 community leaders, including the mayor, the local media, the congressman, business leaders. There was little response. When Garcia tried to pass a tax ratification election to get more money for administrators, Shapleigh sent a letter to 5,000 people in El Paso opposing the tax increase.
“Garcia saw us as a huge threat so he held big rallies with student councils and cheerleaders against our office,” Shapleigh said.
Shapleigh said he and his staff had seven lengthy telephone conversations with Department of Education officials in Washington. He also involved Juan Sepulveda, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanic Americans. On Dec. 10, 2010, Shapleigh wrote to President Obama about the EPISD scandal. The letter said the people of El Paso have “no trust” in the Texas Education Agency to investigate the scandal.
“Without the involvement of the federal government and the ability to subpoena records, serious allegations regarding the illegal reclassification of special education students, the questionable profiling of LEP students, the illegal deployment of truant officers, the forging of attendance records, and the ‘turbomestering’ of students will never be investigated,” Shapleigh wrote, in his letter to Obama.
“We believe that these actions taken by EPISD are in direct violation of the 14th Amendment, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.”
Shapleigh concluded his letter by saying that for the sake of children, the Department of Education should move now to conduct “an objective, independent investigation of the facts to determine what violations have occurred at EPISD, and what remedies will best address what we believe is the systemic denial of equal access to a quality education by a protected class of El Paso students.”
Shapleigh’s conversations with the Department of Education and his letter to Obama led to the FBI investigation. In addition to Garcia, six other unnamed, unindicted co-conspirators are listed in a federal “Information” document.
Asked what should happen over the fact that TEA did not do a thorough investigation of the allegations against Garcia, Shapleigh said: “What is especially tragic is that TAE whitewashed Garcia’s behavior, not once but three times. The El Paso legislative delegation needs to find out how that happened.”