The lawyer for the coach at the epicenter of a grade inflation scandal told the Shelby County Schools board Wednesday his client is a scapegoat for a problem that goes far beyond one coach and one school. Still, the board reaffirmed its December vote to fire Teli White, the former Trezevant High School football coach.

White’s lawyer, Darrell O’Neal, said his client would appeal to chancery court.

White was suspended in 2016, following an internal review; he was fired in December 2017, after a law firm’s investigation uncovered additional evidence of his involvement. The veteran coach has denied the accusations against him and is appealing his termination.

Teli White’s lawyer, Darrell O’Neal, speaks to board members defending the former Trezevant High School football coach.
PHOTO CREDIT: Rebecca Griesbach/Chalkbeat

“If you have a systematic pattern of changing grades and the only people that are being disciplined is a football coach and a secretary, there’s something wrong,” O’Neal said.

He also argued that his client’s suspension was punishment enough for the alleged conduct.

“There is no policy that states you can discipline a teacher twice for the same conduct,” he said. “Mr. White has already been disciplined and should be reinstated.”

The school board voted 7-1 to deny White’s appeal. Board member Mike Kernell voted in White’s favor, and Scott McCormick did not attend the meeting.

The results of an independent investigation into grade changes across seven Memphis high schools are expected in a few weeks. The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman in Memphis is authoring the report.

White has denied requesting changes for football players whose grades had been “drastically and unjustifiably inflated,” according to a district-commissioned report by law firm Butler Snow, which released its findings in December. But evidence on White’s computer suggested otherwise, according to the report, which states:

Coach White had saved to his desktop 10 transcripts of football players from 2012-2015. Three of the transcripts had been altered and given grades inconsistent with the grades on their report cards, and these inconsistencies resulted in higher overall GPAs for the players.

Christopher Campbell, an attorney for the school district, said that whether or not other faculty members are implicated in the scandal is irrelevant so far as White’s case is concerned.

“They want you to consider a wide or broad scale investigation. But that’s not why we’re here, ladies and gentlemen,” Campbell told the board. “We’re here to deal with Teli White.”

Audience members react to deliberations at an appeal hearing for former Trezevant High School coach Teli White on Wednesday.
PHOTO CREDIT: Rebecca Griesbach/Chalkbeat

White’s players were not the only ones at Trezevant whose grades were changed without proper documentation. In total, 57 non-athlete students’ grades were found to have been changed without merit, Butler Snow reported. As a result, 53 students received diplomas without passing the necessary classes.

Trezevant High School is part of the district’s heralded school improvement program known as the Innovation Zone, or iZone.

Since the scandal surfaced, Shelby County Schools has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript to teachers, a records secretary, and one other person specified by the principal. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is also requiring a monthly report from principals, detailing any changes to grades. Such changes can be legitimate if a student completes a process known as course recovery or makeup assignments.

White is one of at least three employees in Tennessee’s largest district to face termination or demotion following investigations into boosting grades. Shirley Quinn, the records secretary at Trezevant, was fired in October 2016 after admitting to changing grades improperly. And Monekea Smith, who was principal at Hamilton High School, was demoted in January after district officials discovered her login credentials were used to change grades. Students protested that decision. A district spokeswoman said she had no additional information on the status of Smith’s case.

The Tennessee Department of Education in January ordered Shelby County Schools to undergo follow-up audits for the next three years.