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Florida teacher fired after 18,000 grades were changed

Sonja Isger
sisger@pbpost.com
Winter Haven News Chief

The school board fired a Forest Hill High teacher Wednesday after an investigation concluded he changed more than 18,000 grades within the district’s online learning programs over the span of two years.

The school’s former principal, Mary Stratos, said she alerted investigators and transferred teacher Randy Whidden from supervising classes with access to the online programs as soon as the allegations landed on her desk in 2018.

Whidden, a 66-year-old with seven years experience in Palm Beach County public schools, continued to teach as the subsequent investigations took their course, said Stratos, who left the district last year to work in North Carolina

Because it was an ongoing personnel investigation, Stratos said that at least during her tenure no students were alerted to the claims and no purported grade changes were undone.

“In his mind he’s helping kids,” Stratos said. Instead, she said, he was hurting them. “We shut it down.”

Despite the matter coming to the board Wednesday, the district did not provide a copy of the investigation per a public records request filed Tuesday. As as a result, details including how Whidden tampered with the grades or how many students were affected were unavailable.

The online course results investigators say Whidden manipulated reside in a suite of programs known as Edgenuity. Schools use Edgenuity in a variety of ways, among them allowing students to make up credit for classes they have failed, but need to graduate.

Access to Edgenuity was similarly abused at Seminole Ridge High in 2017.

The district’s Inspector General’s office concluded that an assistant principal changed the grades on hundreds of assignments in the credit recovery class. With altered grades, 13 students went on to graduate from high school, investigators reported.

When confronted by investigators, Assistant Principal Randy Burden said he didn’t even know how to change a grade. He went on to suggest any changes may have been made by students who could’ve accessed the system when he stepped out of the classroom without logging off — a failing he admitted to his interviewers, according to the report.

The investigators said they found that explanation “incredulous” and “not plausible.”

They then turned to technical experts within the district to track the online changes. Despite Burden’s initial assertion that he didn’t know how to change a grade, those experts found he did it 256 times in two years — 19 times from an IP address they traced to his home. Only 11 of the 256 changes had a reason or justification noted within the records. On four occasions, scores went from 0 to 95.

The district’s audit committee recently turned its attention to grade changing in Edgenuity and in a report issued to the school board last month, said that “access controls to Edgenuity system need improvement.”

In reviewing access, the committee reported it found 14 who don’t work for the district and 144 former employees had the necessary online credentials to change student records in the system - and at least one former employee went in and did just that.

Also, some 25 people who changed jobs within the district retained the access to student records granted them in their last job.

When they examined a sampling of grades, investigators found 65 percent of Edgenuity grade changes were done without valid justification.

@sonjaisger

Sisger@pbpost.com

This story originally published to palmbeachpost.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.