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Schools to Update on Grade Altering

The Durham Public Schools will hold a news conference today to report on its investigation into alleged grade-changing at Hillside High School, allegations that Hillside football coach Lewis Owens disputed Thursday.

School board attorney Kenneth Soo began the investigation Aug. 25 after Sheila Brandon-Williamson accused Hillside Principal Richard Hicks of changing failing grades this summer to keep her son Michael eligible to play football.

The school board met in closed session for nearly two hours Thursday night to discuss a personnel issue. Board members declined to comment, citing personnel-privacy laws. The school system will release an update of the investigation today at an 11 a.m. news conference in the Board of Education Meeting Room in the Fuller Building.

Brandon-Williamson gave a public statement before the meeting and said that she was told Sept. 19 that the investigation had been completed, but that she had been denied access to the findings despite numerous attempts.

In her statement, Brandon-Williamson expressed dismay at the "refusal, reluctance and rejection which I have encountered as I have tried to put my son's education back on track."

Brandon-Williamson said that her son, who transferred to Southern High School this summer, has not been told whether he is a sophomore, junior or senior because official school documents conflicted with report cards and transcripts in her possession.

"In attempting to determine my son's status, I have been bewildered by vague and misleading information relating to his official grades, teachers' grade books not coinciding with transcript grades and grades not being consistent with academic performance," she said.

Michael, a starting offensive lineman at Hillside for two seasons, is not eligible to play football this season.

"My 16-year-old son is the victim of practices that serve no useful end," Brandon-Williamson said. "Yet, so far, my son alone has had to bear the full burden of this fiasco."

Soo said Thursday that he expects to have the investigation wrapped up by mid-October, although he did not specify a deadline. Superintendent Ann Denlinger has asked him to look at not only Michael's grades, but several other students' as well, he said. "I know that Dr. Denlinger wants to learn [the results of the investigation] as soon as possible," Soo said. "It's taken a little longer than I thought it would."

Soo added that no allegations similar to Brandon-Williamson's have surfaced since the investigation began.

Brandon-Williamson told The Herald-Sun that after Michael failed Algebra II and Spanish I in the spring 2000 semester, Hicks used his discretion to change each grade to 70 during the summer so Michael would remain eligible to play this school year, his senior season.

At that time, Brandon-Williamson already had decided to transfer Michael to Southern because she believed Hillside teachers were not doing all they could to help him in the classroom. However, she said Hicks didn't know about the transfer when he changed the grades.

Brandon-Williamson said that after Hillside coaches saw Michael playing for Southern on Aug. 12 at the Pigskin Preview in Raleigh, Hicks changed the Algebra II second-semester grade back to its original failing score, 56, making Michael ineligible.

A copy of Michael's transcript shows that he received a 70 in Spanish for both semesters of the 1999-2000 school year. Copies of his report cards and progress inquiry/update, however, show that he had received a 53 for the first semester and a 40 in the second. The second-semester Algebra II grade on both was a 56.

Owens said Thursday that he was aware of only one grade change: the Spanish grade. He said Hicks changed the grade on the condition that a teacher test Michael and certify that he is proficient enough to pass Spanish I. During her interview with The Herald-Sun, Brandon-Williamson said that she obtained the necessary certification from a teacher at Southern.

Owens added that Hicks told him that he refused Brandon-Williamson's request to change the Algebra II grade. Owens said he believed that Hicks was changing the Spanish grade to keep Michael on track to graduate this year, but not to play football.

Owens also refuted Brandon-Williamson's claim that coaches told Michael he only needed to pass English and did not have to worry about other classes.

"We have 11 [academically ineligible] kids that should've been out here, Michael included, that are not out here," Owens said. "We provided all the opportunities for them to be successful in the classroom by setting up the study halls.

"Whether they take advantage of that or not, it's the old saying, 'You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.' That's pretty much the case with all 11 of those guys. They had opportunities to get their work done, but they just didn't do it."

Brandon-Williamson said she suspected her son might not be earning his grades because of the unusual number of 70s he received. Michael did not receive any 70s his freshman year, when he did not play football. His transcript shows that during his sophomore and junior years, when he played for Hillside, he received seven 70s.

Brandon-Williamson said that after her transfer request was granted, Toreyon Hester, a senior on the Hillside football team, told her that Hicks had changed three of his grades to make him eligible to play football, which prompted her to meet with Hicks about Michael's grades.

"I've never said that," Hester said Thursday. "She made it up."

Southern athletics director Pete Shankle said the Spartans allowed Michael to practice in preseason while they tried to find out whether he was eligible.

Part of the confusion stemmed from the fact that the two schools are on different scheduling systems. At Hillside, students take six classes each semester, including the same core classes both semesters. Southern uses a block schedule, in which students take four different classes each semester.

Under the Hillside system, a student must pass five classes each semester to remain eligible, while Southern students have to pass four.

Shankle said that after he found out Michael needed to pass five classes, he called Hicks after the Pigskin Preview and was told that Michael had not passed enough classes to be eligible.

"It's our job to find out if each student at Southern is eligible to play sports," Shankle said. "We didn't have an official transcript [when preseason began]. So it was my recourse to call Hillside High School and ask about his grades."

Owens said he and the Hillside players have not paid much attention to the allegations.

"I hadn't concentrated on that, because I know what the situation is," he said. "We've got everything above the law. We were well within our eligibility rules. That doesn't really concern me.

"I'm just focused on our kids and who we are playing. The other stuff, that's outside our family. I don't lose any sleep about it. I know what the truth is, so it doesn't bother me."