Probe finds cheating in GED program at Arkansas’ youth lockups

By: - August 16, 2022 11:55 am
prison cells

Canva image

Arkansas officials last year noticed a suspicious increase in incarcerated juveniles earning GEDs.

A review of classroom surveillance footage during a preliminary GED test at Mansfield Juvenile Treatment Center confirmed their fears. An educator for the contractor that runs Arkansas’ youth lockups provided answers to students, state records show.

Sarah Gober, a then-teacher for Rite of Passage, read the test questions aloud and would provide the answer.

For example, she’d say, “I have an aunt and her name is Aunt B” to indicate “B” was the correct answer, according to the previously unreported probe completed by the Arkansas Division of Youth Services’ Internal Affairs Investigation Unit in April.

Gober also asked the youth what they would say if asked about receiving test answers.

“Because I would lose my license and you all would not get your GEDs,” she said, according to the report. (The Arkansas Department of Human Services declined to publicly release a copy of the surveillance video, citing a state juvenile privacy law.)

But, Gober didn’t lose her teaching license, and the students who earned their GEDs were able to keep them.

Gober and two other Rite of Passage educators resigned amid the investigation, and the Arkansas Division of Youth Services overhauled the GED program for kids in its custody.

The investigation substantiated the cheating that occurred on camera, but DYS records and former students and employees suggest cheating occurred on other tests, including final GED exams.

Student achievement data, which ROP and DYS touted in early 2021, also raises questions. In the year before the investigation, 63 students in state custody received GEDs. The following year, just 26 received GEDs.

The cheating was just one of a series of problems that arose during a tumultuous period after ROP took over operation of all four of the state’s juvenile treatment centers in July 2020. (It has run the facility in Alexander since 2016.)

The juveniles, who can be up to 21 years old, are at these facilities under court-ordered sentences and for treatment. As of last week, there were about 225 kids in custody at ROP facilities, according to company officials.

GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX

A review of emails between Arkansas DHS staff and ROP detail a long list of struggles: federal education standards not being met, allegations of inappropriate contact between staff and juveniles, prescribed medications not being administered, multiple ER visits after kids consumed potentially poisonous mushrooms growing on facility grounds, among others.

Still, state regulators said that ROP has been a good partner. Sure, there have been problems, but Division of Youth Services Director Michael Crump said ROP has been quick to address issues as they arise.

Crump also credited ROP for eliminating other problems, like escapes, which were pervasive before the Nevada-based company took over. He also noted that juvenile justice facilities in neighboring states have seen far worse troubles over the past year.

“You’re talking about the most troubled kids in the state, so inherently, you’re going to have some problems,” Crump said.

Marlon Morrow, the executive director over ROP’s Arkansas facilities, said the group has “tightened” and improved its processes. He noted that ROP began operating the lockups in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“That was a struggle,” he said.

The company also had a difficult time hiring and retaining staff. For now, those troubles have subsided and 90% of positions are filled statewide.

He also noted that juvenile justice facilities are heavily scrutinized, and due to the population of kids, problems are bound to arise.

“We’ve improved every year,” he said.

The investigation

State watchdogs made three substantiated findings as part of their investigation:

  • Gober and Sara Blaylock, an ROP paraprofessional, provided answers to students on an Aug. 26 TABE test, an acronym for Test for Adult Basic Education. It’s the first test in the process for obtaining a GED in Arkansas.
  • Rite of Passage failed to follow regulations for transferring special education students from SPED courses to the GED program.
  • There was poor oversight of testing procedures and fidelity by Rite of Passage Principal Martha Whitfield.

Investigators wrote that they could not substantiate that there was a scheme to fraudulently award students GEDs.

However, about a dozen students told investigators that Gober, Blaylock and another teacher, Clifton “Kris” DeJarnette, provided answers on preliminary exams and the final GED test.

In several cases, students told investigators that Blaylock completed tests for some students. Blaylock, they said, provided inappropriate assistance on preliminary exams and final GED tests.

In a signed statement, another student told investigators that DeJarnette worked math problems for her on a piece of scratch paper during the final GED test. She said she would not have passed the test or obtained her GED without his help. This allegation was not included in the investigation’s substantiated findings, and DeJarnette left Rite of Passage before investigators could interview him, according to their report.

SUPPORT NEWS YOU TRUST.

Gober admitted to the cheating caught on video when interviewed by a DYS investigator, but she denied ever providing answers on the final GED test. Blaylock also told investigators that she never provided students improper assistance.

Neither Gober, DeJarnette or Blaylock could be reached for comment.

Morrow and Whitfield said they believe the cheating was isolated. They viewed the TABE test as an instructional tool, and the teachers were trying to help the students learn.

“It was totally well-intentioned,” Whitfield said.

“We had systems in place that were not being followed,” she added. “We’ve polished these to make sure they are being followed.”

DYS saw it differently and pushed back hard when ROP requested that Gober be allowed to remain on staff after DYS Superintendent Marcella Dalla Rosa prohibited her from visiting DYS campuses or contacting in-custody youths.

“She clearly knew through her statement what she was doing was wrong and that she knew it could cost her her teaching license,” DYS Deputy Director Glenn Holt wrote in an email. “It was willful and intentional. Her conduct was so egregious it calls into question youth who have struggled to obtain their GED who suddenly now have obtained them if they actually earned their GED now.”

The April investigation wasn’t the first time state regulators had expressed concerns about Rite of Passage’s GED and special education programs. Emails show one DYS official cautioned ROP administrators about transferring special education students to the GED program as early as October 2020.

In a May 2021 email to Whitfield and other ROP staff, DYS Special Education Coordinator Wayne Foster wrote that two special education students had been improperly transferred to the GED program. He asked to be informed before any future transfers.

Special education students receive more personalized instruction, so state and federal education laws require a conference between the student’s guardians and teachers before making any changes to their individualized education plans, usually called IEPs.

But students continued to be improperly transferred, ROP’s special education coordinator told investigators in the April report.

After the cheating investigation began late last year, Arkansas Juvenile Ombudsman Brooke Digby expressed extreme frustration with ROP. The ombudsman is an independent advocate for kids in state custody.

“There should have been red flags everywhere within ROP when these youth were being transferred from SPED to GED — especially after obtaining GEDs within a month or two,” she wrote in an email to DYS and ROP officials. “I don’t even know how to put into words how disappointing this situation is.”

The fallout

Rite of Passage no longer administers GED testing, Dalla Rosa said. Instead, the Division of Youth Services hired a GED coordinator to oversee programming and testing.

ROP administrators said they have also taken a new approach to the GED program, being more selective about which kids to recommend for GEDs rather than high school diplomas.

ROP’s Morrow said that in-custody juveniles are often focused on obtaining their GED as quickly as possible because they believe it will help them be released sooner. But a GED is just one of many considerations before a juvenile is released.

The organization, Morrow said, focuses on building soft skills that will help older kids find jobs and be successful in the community.

“A GED doesn’t do you any good if you don’t know how to be respectful and talk to someone,” Morrow said.

As for the educators who resigned, there’s no evidence that the Arkansas Department of Education took any action against their licenses.

The department doesn’t comment on allegations against teachers; however, spokeswoman Kimberly Mundell said the agency reviewed Youth Services’ report.

“We did not take additional action because DYS had already taken the corrective action,” Mundell said.

Gober’s certification for special education and English remains active, according to a public online database. The database does not include any information about whether or where Gober is employed.

DeJarnette remains licensed as an administrator, and he was recently named principal of Reed Elementary School in Dumas.

Blaylock, who was identified at a paraprofessional in the investigation, doesn’t have any certification listed in the Education Department database.

Progress

Last week, four students in caps and gowns at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center beamed as Whitfield addressed them at their graduation ceremony.

Three earned GEDs and one earned a high school diploma.

One boy’s family attended the ceremony. Another family watched by video conference.

“You will not leave here as juvenile delinquents; you’ll leave here as high school graduates,” Whitfield told the students in her address.

Crump and Dalla Rosa said they’ve seen significant improvements in education at the juvenile treatment centers this year.

And last week, ROP’s Arkansas management team rattled off a list of positive developments at their facilities: more vocational training opportunities, students enrolling in college courses and enlisting in the military. Staff also took a collection to help a student pay for aviation classes.

“Our success is very private, and our failures are very public,” ROP Program Director Charles Perkins said.

Rite of Passage’s contract with the state expires next year. Crump said state officials plan to issue another request for proposals for ROP or any other companies to bid on operating the facilities.

This story was first published by the Arkansas Advocate, part of the States Newsroom  network of news bureaus that includes the Louisiana Illuminator.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. He spent the better part of the last decade investigating and reporting on Arkansas government and politics. For three years, he covered education policy, medical marijuana and the Arkansas General Assembly as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. Hunter got his start in journalism covering sports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.

MORE FROM AUTHOR