Turner elementary teacher goes before Dougherty tribunal

The tribunal did not change; the hearing was led by Sid Cottingham with Gary Walker as chairman and Sam Allen and FD Toth as members.
/ Colby Gallagher

Wednesday marked the second day of three tribunal hearings regarding the 2009 CRCT scores.

The tribunal did not change; the hearing was led by Sid Cottingham with Gary Walker as chairman and Sam Allen and FD Toth as members.

Today's hearing regarded Turner Elementary School teacher, Nikki Lyons, who is accused of prompting students to check wrong answers during the 2009 CRCT tests and given a notice of non-renewal on May 4th, 2012.

Flin Coleman presented the case against Lyons as Attorney of the Dougherty County School System. Coleman says he will present his case with Georgia Bureau of Investigations recordings as well as witnesses to prove Lyons admitted her wrongdoing.

Howard Stiller represented Lyons and presented his opening statement by saying he is going to put the recordings in context by speaking about the 2007-2008 school year. Stiller says Lyons was a senior in college at the time and was a student teacher in the room of Diane Hill.

Stiller says during that year, Lyons witnessed Hill administer the CRCT and it was her only experience with the test. During the exam, Stiller says Lyons witnessed Hill engage the students by prompting them to check wrong answers and it was this experience that taught Lyons all she knew about the test.

Stiller said Lyons engaged in these acts the next year without knowing they were wrong because she had witnessed a seasoned teacher do them.

Coleman called GBI Agent Eve Rodgers to the stand as first witness and asked questions about Lyons's interview and her process of recording it.

Rodgers used a handheld device to document Lyons's testimony and upload it to GBI computers. It was then burned to a CD; this CD was admitted as evidence by Coleman.

Rodgers says Lyons willingly gave the interview in August of 2011, which was then played before the tribunal.

During the interview, Rodgers asked about Lyons's fourth grade language arts class she was assigned to in 2009 and her relationship with administration.

Lyons told Rodgers the administration was very supportive, especially by moving her to second grade social studies and science, a much better fit for her teaching style.

Rodgers asked about Lyons's year of student teaching at Alice Coachman and her proctoring of the exam with Hill as well as her first year administering the exam herself.

Lyons then explained in detail the process behind giving the test and what is done once the children are done.

After explaining procedures, Lyons talked about how she found out her school and classroom were flagged. Lyons said she was told directly out of respect and remembers thinking her students did well on the test in certain subjects.

Rodgers told Lyons during the interview that her class had many erasures and if that was just a coincidence, most of the erasures wouldn't have gone from wrong to right. Rodgers said most of the erasures on Lyons's tests were grouped in one subject and were changed to right answers.

Rodgers also asked Lyons about the pressure given by administration to do well on the tests to which Lyons said there was emphasis on doing well throughout the year but her feelings of pressure to do well came from being a first-time teacher.

Finally, Rodgers zeroed in on the types of acts that cause erasures, such as prompting students to check their work.

The tribunal allowed a brief recess before getting into the heart of the interview.

After the recess, the interview was played with Rodgers telling Lyons 39% of the classrooms at Turner were flagged. Rodgers said that it was enough to be flagged but not an alarming number, which says a lot in relation to other investigations that showed organized cheating.

Rodgers said these numbers usually show the classes that had teachers using vocal inflections, eye contact and other things to prompt students to change an answer.

Lyons had 26 students and a total of 74 erasures; Rodgers says this isn't bad if distributed evenly but they weren't.

Rodgers told Lyons one student had 14 erasures in math that went from wrong to right and another with 10 wrong to right switches in reading.

Lyons then said she witnessed things like this when she was a student teacher where students took several tries before coming to a correct answer.

Rodgers responded by saying she knows the erasures occurred from something happening and not students just coincidentally taking several tries. She said she believes this was not organized or done after the tests were over but wants to know what happened during the tests to cause these erasures.

Lyons reflected on her teaching style saying she's more active than others. Rodgers said others said Lyons is very aware of what her students do during tests and constantly walks around the room, which is okay. Where it turns wrong, said Rodgers, is when Lyons may make some kind of expression or interaction to tell the student they're wrong.

Lyons said if there's something she did, it may have been a facial expression because she smiled or patted the back of students doing well and rolled her eyes at those who weren't during regular class days.

Rodgers asked if there was any targeted prompts, like if a student missed questions 1 and 4. Lyons says if she saw this, she would say to the student you may need to check the work you just did or you need to look that page over again.

Rodgers asked a bit more details of this process to which Lyons explained she never gave specific answers and the most specific prompting she did was tell a student to look over a particular section.

Agent Rodgers dismissed Lyons and the recording ended. During the interview, Rodgers told Lyons if she told the truth they would not hear back from the GBI and it would be over. Coleman asked Rodgers what she meant by this to which Rodgers answered their goal was to give those investigated the knowledge that they would not be arrested but she did not mean there wouldn't be any administrative repercussions because the GBI does not deal with them.

Stiller took this time to cross examine Rodgers and started by asking if she let Lyons know that the interview was being recorded.

Rodgers said it was possible to see the recorder but did not openly tell her and Lyons did not ask.

Stiller then asked if the GBI interviewed the proctor or any of the students of Lyons. Rodgers said she is not positive but does not think so.

The charges against Lyons were scrutinized by Stiller who said Lyons is being accused of using facial expressions and verbal prompts to encourage students to change wrong answers to right. Stiller said no where during the interview did Lyons admit to these actions by saying she said check your work.

Stiller asked a few more questions before turning over the floor to the tribunal who had a few questions.

The tribunal wanted to know if the students who had certain scores were the ones with the erasures but Rodgers could not provide that data.

Rodgers was then dismissed and the tribunal took a break to allow lunch, which they are currently taking.

Coleman called his last witness, System Test Coordinator Renee Bridges, forward. Bridges answered questions regarding testing policies and the fine line between ensuring students do well and cheating.

Bridges stated all proctors, who can be teachers, student teachers or parents, have to go through training and it is documented.

Coleman then turned the floor over to Stiller who called Lyons to the stand.

Stiller immediately asked whether or not Lyons was trained to be a proctor but Lyons responded she never received this training and everything she knew was based off of what she learned from Hill.

Lyons says she realizes she made mistakes and regrets making them but did not intentionally engage in these acts. She said had she known they were wrong, she would not have prompted students in any way and wants to get back to the classroom.

Coleman asked Lyons why she did not read the full manual given to her before the test.

Lyons said it was 46 pages long and was given to them on Friday when the test was that Monday, but they weren't allowed to take it home making it very difficult to finish.

Coleman presented a test agreement to Lyons that she signed before she issued the test in 2009 and asked her to read it over. In the agreement, Lyons agreed not to give or give clues to any answers.

Lyons says at that time, she wouldn't have considered her actions to be unethical but after receiving proper training and being questioned, she admits that she violated the agreement.

Coleman finished his questioning and the tribunal was given the floor.

Tribunal member Allen asked how long Lyons would stand at a particular desk to which she said 5-6 seconds. Allen then asked if the answer sheet is separate from the test booklets and whether or not Lyons would have to read the question before finding the question on the answer sheet. Lyons said yes she would have to spend the time to cross reference.

Lyons was then asked to clarify what mistakes she made. Lyons said she did not pay close enough attention to the testing agreement, she should not have told students to look over their work and she should have asked for more training or an explanation.

Lyons was then dismissed to allow three quick witnesses to be called. The three witnesses, all women in the education field, testified to Lyons's character calling her eager, enthusiastic and energetic. The women were quickly dismissed after testifying.

Susan Jefferson, a teacher at Turner Elementary, was next to testify.

Jefferson was quickly examined, answering questions about Lyons's character and dismissed.

Stiller then called Chiquita Greene, a teacher at Albany Early College, to the stand.

Greene followed the same process of Jefferson and was quickly dismissed.

Both Coleman and Stiller agreed to waive the closing arguments to allow for evidence to be examined.

After less than a half hour of deliberation, the tribunal decided to accept the recommendation Superintendent Dr. Joshua Murfree of non-renewal of Lyons's contract.

The tribunal will present the recommendation to the board of education who will either accept it or reject it.

If accepted, Lyons will no longer be employed by the Dougherty County School System.

Stay connected to as the story develops and the FOX 31 Newscast at 10 PM.