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When College Opportunity Advocacy Goes Awry
Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.
Thursday November 01, 2012
by: Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

Section: Inside Insight

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You are a school counselor who works diligently on behalf of students. Your students have greater challenges than most students in your school system of 19 high schools, including a higher retention rate and very few four-year university admissions. Your school’s practice when a student retakes and passes a previously failed course is to change an F grade to the new grade; therefore, many F’s are permanently deleted from student transcripts. This is not a district practice or policy, but it has worked for your students and been silently blessed by your school’s administration. Your school’s practice has resulted in more students being given an opportunity to graduate and/or attend a four-year university. Are there any legal or ethical concerns with the schools practice?

As system change agents, school counselors want the best for their students, but can advocacy go too far? In the high-stress world of college admission, where a university acceptance brings political capital to a high school and increased social status for parents and students, school counselors can feel the pressure to get students into Ivy League schools and provide the high school with more bragging rights. Sometimes, school counselors follow the unwritten rules and practices that have gone on before them in an effort to help students secure college admission or help an athlete comply with NCAA eligibility. Cases involving the manipulation of records have played out in administrative hearings, state professional practice commission hearings and courts of law. Following are four cases that resulted in school counselors being fined, losing professional credentials, having their jobs taken away and ending up in court accounting for irregularities in transcripts.

Falsifying college transcripts: A longtime school counselor, Judith Meller, who practiced at a Fort Lee, N.J., high school, was investigated for changing grades on transcripts sent to colleges. Dozens of college applicants had their grades boosted without their knowledge. The school district’s website bragged about the success their students had getting into prestigious colleges. “The graduating class of 2007 surpassed our wildest expectations with the acceptance of students to five Ivies and 35 of the top 50 top-tier colleges in the nation.” Indications were that part of the motivation to change grades was not just to help the students but also to enhance the school’s reputation. The district found six altered transcripts for current seniors. Meller lost her job and her certificate to practice as a school counselor.

School practices not sanctioned by the school board: Jolyon Raymond, Kory Kumasaka and Acie Dubose were accused of altering 200 grades during the 2002–2003 school year at Franklin High School in Seattle, Wash. All three of the school counselors had glowing reputations and support from the internal and external community. Their advocacy was widely respected among all the students of the school, especially the senior class. Allegations arose when dozens of grades were changed that helped 55 students meet the necessary 2.0 grade-point average for graduation, but the changes were not properly documented or supported by written district policy. The school counselors were placed on leave during the investigation. Students started a petition to reinstate the school counselors and teachers, and parents voiced their support.

“If they did anything, it’s because they care too much,” said Lucy Gaskill-Gaddis, former chair of Franklin’s site council. Teacher Nan Johnson’s explains the reason six of her former students graduated from high school is that Raymond persuaded them to enroll in night classes and not give up. The testimonials in support of these three school counselors were stellar. Following the investigation, all of the school counselors were allowed to return to the school. Investigators found that the practice of grade changing did not occur in isolation; in fact, hundreds of grades had been changed for students in 10 Seattle public high schools in recent years. Investigators deemed that the school and district shared the blame as the practice of substituting F’s for subsequent passing grades was well-known and part of the culture of the school.

Personal gain from ralsifying records: Casoer Sanzone was a high school counselor at his daughter’s school. As a part of his job, he was able to access course grades and could make grade changes when necessary. His daughter was in the running for valedictorian of her class, which allowed her access to many scholarships and would considerably soften the burden of financing her education. A transfer student became part of the same class as Sanzone’s daughter. Sanzone was in charge of inputting the transfer student’s grades into the school’s computer system. Sanzone intentionally lowered several of the transfew student’s grades, which lowered the student’s overall cumulative average and class rank. He then raised some of his daughter’s grades, securing his child’s place as the valedictorian. Sanzone resigned from his position a year later and paid a civil penalty of $2,000.

NCAA eligibility: Just this past August, a Memphis City Schools high school counselor resigned after admitting to creating a fraudulent transcript for an athlete at the school. The user account for Wooddale High School counselor Valerie Starks-Sykes showed she made substantial grade changes for a Wooddale student, Javon Robinson, who went on to be an Auburn running back. One week after the school district acknowledged the manipulation of his transcript, the NCAA ruled him ineligible to play. Although it appeared to investigators that several school counselors and possibly other adults outside the school counseling department were involved, Starks-Sykes chose to resign instead of taking the suspension the school district recommended. Starks-Sykes admitted to making the changes, saying she was certain someone had asked her to make the changes but refused to name anyone else who was involved.

Most if not all of the school counselors involved in these cases were well-meaning, hard-working advocates who cared about making better lives for their students. It may be tempting to manipulate transcripts in favor of students, even when written policy does not support your actions. However, professional school counselors who seek to advocate for students should do so by advocating for changes to written policies. In the absence of supportive policies, falsifying records or using discretion in changing records can lead to negative consequences for students and also discipline for school counselors, including forced resignation, firing and losing certification.

Adhering to district policies can be especially difficult in situations where school counselors face pressure from others in the school, including administrators and supervisors, to alter grades or transcripts. Professional school counselors, however, must heed these cases as a warning; pressure from others will not lead to legal or political protection for their jobs. Falsifying records for any reason follows the tenet “the end does not justify the means.”

Carolyn Stone, Ed.D., professor, University of North Florida, is chair of ASCA’s Ethics Committee. She can be reached at cstone@unf.edu. Contact the author for references to this article. The author would like to thank Sarah Beth Glicksteen for her research help with this article. To submit your questions for a future column, e-mail them to ethics@schoolcounselor.org.