CRCT teacher tribunals begin in Dougherty County

The Dougherty County School System tribunal hearings began Tuesday. / Colby Gallagher

The tribunals for teachers flagged for issues began at 9 AM Tuesday morning.

The tribunal is comprised of retired Tift County superintendent Scott Chestnutwood, retired superintendent Jack Willis, and Dr. Wanda West. Arguing for the defense is Chris Cohilas and the complainant is represented by Flin Coleman. Dawson attorney T. Gamble is the hearing officer.

Investigators read all the tests to see how many erased wrong answers and were filled in right. They used these numbers to make a state average. Any number that was three standard deviations away from the average were flagged. They then looked at school systems who had a certain number of flags and flagged those districts.

Evidence says it appears some people may have taken the tests for the kids that it shows others were involved in organized plans to change test scores, but today is a third category that is identified less organized than these two groups. These four were under the category that they prompted the student saying "you might want to look over this section again" or "check back over number 3" if they were wrong.

All four teachers when approached about it admitted to what they had done.

Superintendent Joshua Murfree asked all administrators cooperate with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, but some did and some didn't. The four today did cooperate and admitted what they engaged in.

The defense and the complainant are presenting a joint recommendation for the four and if the tribunal does not accept it, they have a right to a full hearing.

All four teachers sent before the tribunal thus far have been recommended to suspended pay for 60 days. The tribunal will have and have five days to accept any recommendation.

For more on each individual case, read below. Case names will be in bold with the details of what was discussed for each person facing the tribunal.

First Tribunal Case: Jennifer Smith
The first case presented was on school teacher Martin Luther King Elementary school Jennifer Smith who has been a teacher with the system 23 years with no issues and received notice of her contract non-renewal on May 4th.

According to the Governor's investigative finding, on the 2009 CRCT, she assisted students to recheck answers when they were wrong which violates the CRCT instructors manual.

Prior to CRCT exam, the principal of Martin Luther King Elementary gave her a needs improvement on her evaluation of student performance.

Smith felt she was under great amount of pressure and felt her job was on the line.

She was teaching the 3rd grade and moved to 4th and she was told the students needed to pass and she recommended some be held back -- when she was moved she had some of the same students and felt she was going to lose her job because of the grades.

When GBI approached, she gave a full and honest interview.

She also used eye contact to prompt students they were wrong and says this eye contact may be the reason her class was flagged. She says she has never done this in the past and students understood what the eye contact meant because she used this method on correcting homework.

Smiths class's number of erases are not just accountable to her there may be other reasons -- there was a very high number of erases and what she said she did could not be the reason for all of them.

The recommended punishment is a 60 calendar day suspension without pay.

The defense for the case then began their case for Miss Smith.

The defense said there is no denying in Georgia there was signs of organized effort to help students and teachers taking tests but Smith does not fall under these categories. Smith set up interview with GBI because it was weighing on her.

The year prior to the year in question she was a 3rd grade teacher. A large number of underprivileged children were in this area and several kids in her class were not top performers and several who were not functionally literate. It was recommended these students be detained and not all were. They moved onto 4th grade and at the end of the year she was given the "needs improvement" on student performance.

When called into principals office and was told students need to perform well on the CRCT, she was also told that her job was on the line. She was asked what she was going to do to get them up and the reassigned to the 4th grade with many of the same students she previously had.

Defense says evidence shows this technique often shows a teacher is at the end of their rope and Smith felt this was true in her case.

Smith tapped her finger or used eye signals to show students to look again. She said it would be impossible to have been the sole reason for all of the changes because it was such a high number.

The defense says that evidence suggests there are other culprits that have tampered with the exams and they will never know the truth because many of the people resigned or retired.

The defense acknowledges Smith was wrong and admits that, but her infractions pale in comparison to what was uncovered in investigation says the defense.

The defense asks that the tribunal accepts the two month suspension without pay due to nature of violation and her experience.

The Tribunal asks if principal is still employed and Coleman said "when the principal was questioned, she gave few answers and claimed the 5th amendment then retired shortly after."

Tribunal member Jack Willis says teaching is all about pressure and what message does it send to kids if a teacher responds to pressure this way.

Willis then asks about the CRCT scores since the 2009 case. Chris Cohilas says he does not know but the GBI did look at it. The defense adds school's number of wrong to right answers decreased, but he is not privy to the individual scores of Smith

Coleman says in 2009 number of classrooms at MLK elementary that were flagged was 26 rooms -- or 45%. In 2010, 0% was flagged. Coleman says this type of thing is not going on anymore due to evidence. He also says investigation does appear to have eliminated the obvious cheating because the number of erases in 2010 and 2011 do not compare.

Coleman adds that this "culture" of cheating that existed in 2009 and possibly prior has been out on notice and has been shown that it cannot continue.

Dr. Wanda West asks to see what the pay difference would be so they can see the weight of the recommendation on Smith.

Coleman says they do not have exact figures but Cohilas said it would be roughly $10,000 or a loss of $850 per month.

The Tribunal has five days to make an answer in writing and are meeting right now to discuss for 15 minutes.

If they accept recommendation. Smith will have a contract for the 2012-2013 school year.

Second Tribunal Case: Alberta Wallace

Alberta Wallace of Sherwood Elementary School who was also given notice of contract non-renewal on May 4th.

Wallace was not renewed because she allegedly used vocal inflection and facial cues to alert her students to wrong answers on the CRCT test.

Coleman says the evidence against Wallace is weaker because the GBI's investigation never drew admittance from Wallace.

Coleman also says some of the interviews were lengthy because the teacher did not admit outright to a certain action that violated the instructor's code and Wallace falls under this category.

Wallace reportedly told the GBI during one of her interviews she may have used vocal inflection and that might be the reason behind the switched answers.

Coleman says the consensus is that this vocal inflection could not have been the only reason for the high volume of changed answers but they cannot account for the other causes.

Wallace has since been relocated to the Isabella Complex but has not received any financial repercussions.

The Tribunal expressed concern over the fact that the teachers did not face any suspension but were relocated with no changes to their salary.

Both sides have recommended Wallace face a 60 day suspension without pay as a financial repercussion.

The Tribunal will consider this case but does not have to make an immediate decision.

Third Tribunal Case: Lavonda Jolivette

After a short lunch break, the Tribunal met for the case surrounding Lavonda Jolivette, a 2nd grade teacher at Turner Elementary School.

Jolivette, like the other two women, was given a notice of non renewal on May 4th due to her improper actions surrounding the CRCT scores.

Students were interviewed by the GBI in Jolivette's case and two of them gave vague answers saying she had helped them on the test but did not say how.

The GBI then interviewed Jolivette who admitted she told students to check their work when she observed an incorrect answer.

Coleman says while Jolivette did admit her wrongdoing, this case also shows a high volume of changed answers that cannot all be traced to her misconduct.

According to the records, Jolivette said she felt that her students were underperforming that year and she was concerned for her job.

Both Coleman and Jolivette's defense attorney Herbert Benson, recommend 60 days suspension without pay.

The Tribunal will add Jolivette's case to the list of considerations and have 5 days to accept the recommendation.

If it is accepted, Jolivette's contract will be renewed for the upcoming school year.

Fourth Tribunal Case: Fatima Jackson
The last to be heard is the case of Fatima Jackson, a third grade teacher at Turner Elementary who received a non-renewal notice on May 4th as well.

Jackson reportedly walked up and down the aisles during the test and told students to check their answers when they were incorrect.

Coleman says Jackson was very forthright with the GBI and told them about her wrongdoings and that should be taken into consideration.

Both Coleman and Jackson's attorney, Maurice King, recommend that she also be receive a 60 day suspension without pay.

According to reports, Jackson was a teacher with successful test scores at Alice Coachman prior to her job at Turner and attributed her misconduct to a pressure to succeed at this school as well.

This is the last case the Tribunal will hear for the day. They will have five days to decide the fate of Smith, Wallace, Jolivette and Jackson.

The Tribunal is currently reviewing all of the cases.

Stay connected to as the story develops and the FOX 31 Newscast at 10 PM. Updates will be posted as each side goes before the Tribunal.