CRCT investigation won't omit tips

Photo by J.D. Sumner

Photo by J.D. Sumner

ALBANY, Ga. -- Declaring that "cheating will not be tolerated" in the Dougherty County School System, Superintendent Joshua Murfree vowed Tuesday at a hastily called news conference that he is "committed to finding the truth" in alleged Criterion-Referenced Competency Test cheating, and urged state investigators not to accept anonymous tips or emails.

But Richard Hyde, the lead investigator from Gov. Nathan Deal's office into possible cheating on the 2009 CRCTs in Dougherty County, says ignoring anonymous tips is "absurd," adding that tipsters should call his tipline directly and not go through the school system.

Murfree, who refused to answer questions after issuing his terse, prepared statement at the 11:30 a.m. news conference, urged teachers and administrators who suspect "unethical behavior in regard to CRCT testing" to come to him first.

"My door is always open," he said.

The alleged cheating took place in 2009, and Murfree became superintendent in 2010. Sally Whatley was the superintendent during the time being investigated by the state.

Speaking on the state's investigation, Murfree said that anyone found to have been involved in cheating will be fired. He said he expects school employees to cooperate with investigators.

"I will make a request to the investigative team and investigators that will return to our system that, when they get leads, they do not accept anonymous calls, letters, emails or otherwise without holding those calls, letters, emails, or otherwise to the same standards and scrutiny for which they are holding this district," Murfree said. "All callers should give their names and telephone numbers as a point of reference for follow-up. If an anonymous letter has no name and number, it should not be accepted."

The superintendent's statement brought an immediate and pointed response from Hyde.

"That statement is absurd," Hyde said. "We take information anywhere we come across it. Witnesses with information should contact us directly (at (404) 962-3849), bypassing the school system entirely."

Murfree said that a DCSS internal investigation of the 2009 test results resulted in no evidence of fraud.

"Cheating is something that will not be tolerated in our school system. Although I came to this office after the erasure audit and local investigations began, I have been committed to finding the truth from the very beginning," Murfree said. "And we have no reason in evidence to suggest that the results of our investigations are not valid."

The investigation into the exams administered to first- through eighth-graders in Atlanta and Dougherty County began last August at the direction of then-Gov. Sonny Perdue. At issue is the number of erasures on the 2009 CRCTs in which wrong answers were corrected. State officials were concerned that at some of the schools there were too many of those corrections, and eventually focused on Atlanta and Dougherty County.

The findings of state investigations into Atlanta's school districts were announced July 5. Among other things, the governor's report found cheating in 44 of the 56 Atlanta schools examined and said that 178 teachers and principals in the schools had been involved in the cheating.

Of the 178 system employees, 82 confessed to misconduct. Six principals pleaded the Fifth Amendment, refusing to answer questions. The report concluded that those six -- and 32 more -- were either involved with or should have known that cheating was going on in their schools. The Atlanta system's interim superintendent, Erroll Davis, has given the teachers implicated in the scandal until Wednesday to resign or be fired.

The Professional Association of Georgia Educators is urging that each teacher be given due process before he or she is terminated.

The report also said the Atlanta cheating was widespread and had been going on since as far back as 2001.

The news out of the governor's office has resulted in an up-and-down ride for the DCSS over the past few weeks.

Earlier this month, a communications office staffer for Deal told The Herald in an email dated July 6 that the Dougherty probe had been dropped, confirming an earlier Associated Press report.

The next day Deputy Communications Director Brian Robinson said that the governor had reversed himself and granted the request of state investigators to complete their probe into the local school system.

"After reviewing the preliminary results of the investigation in Dougherty County on Wednesday (July 6) and today, contrary to my initial impression, I do not believe the investigation should be terminated," said former Georgia Attorney General Mike Bowers in a message sent to the governor's office. "Given those preliminary results, it is my recommendation that we complete the investigation in Dougherty. We will do this expeditiously with as little intrusion into the school system as is possible."

A week later, Hyde announced that his "cheating tip line" had been getting calls from the 229 area code and his team was returning "in force."

"We'll be back (in Albany) in full strength in mid-August," Hyde said.

"We've already had a number of teachers confess or provide us information. We are pleased with the men and women who have come forward, and we think we will ultimately be as successful in Albany as we were in Atlanta."

It is unclear if the teachers admitted to wrongdoing themselves or told investigators that they had observed improper activities.

"The investigators are not sharing what they have found with us," DCSS spokesperson R.D. Harter said. "All I can say is we have no evidence of wrongdoing. I know he (Murfree) has contacted people in Atlanta, but I am not privy to those conversations."