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School board member implicated in grade changing investigation

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Published:   |   Updated: March 6, 2014 at 07:46 PM

BROOKSVILLE - The Hernando School District is investigating allegations that school board member John Sweeney circumvented procedures to have his son's grades changed. Sweeney's son was given a special login to take two English exams at home rather than under supervision at a school, according to signed letters from three people involved in the incident, which were originally obtained by WWJB Radio.

His grades on the exams were then amended from Cs to Bs before another change was requested to elevate the courses to honors level, Susan Duval, principal of Springstead High School states in her letter to Hernando's superintendent Lori Romano.

Romano said there could be legal consequences if the district finds merit to the allegations.

"It would be highly unethical and illegal for anyone but a student's teacher of record to remove a grade or change a student's grade on a student's official record and/or transcript," she said in a prepared statement.

Citing the Federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, school board attorney Dennis Alfonso declined to elaborate on any of the details of the investigation, which is ongoing.

Sweeney's attorney, Larry Brown, of Orlando, who represents school boards and student rights issues, said the allegations stem from Sweeney challenging grades assigned to his son, which every parent has the right to do.

The fact that Sweeney is on the school board is irrelevant, Brown said. His client believes his son's educational records were reported and recorded incorrectly, he said, and the allegations do not stem from an abuse of Sweeney's power as a school board member. "Mr. Sweeney has been very respectful of that line," Brown said. "I think a lot of witnesses will come forward and say Mr. Sweeney did not abuse his position."

According to the letters, Sweeney's son originally earned a D and an F in English over two semesters.

After a discussion between Duval, Sweeney, Assistant Superintendent Ken Pritz, and Endeavor Academy Principal Tim Urban it was decided at the district level that Sweeney's son would be allowed to take English 2 via an online course called Compass for each semester, Duval's letter states.

The student would need to take the test at Springstead High School under the direct supervision of an employee at Endeavor Academy and the district-wide assessment office, Duval said.

After struggling to establish a test time and date, Duval states in her letter she received a text message from Sweeney on Oct. 14.

"There is no need to pull (student's name) out of class re compass. Please let him stay in class. I am working with Dr. Romano. Have a great week," Sweeney texted her, according to Duval's letter.

Duval later learned that the student took the test at home on Oct. 11 and Oct. 12 after Urban requested a user name and password to access the program, she states.

"I sent an email . to Dr. Romano and Ken Pritz ... expressing my concern over the irregularity (my thoughts) in the procedures that had been set up," she said.

On Dec. 18, Sweeney brought a grade change form to Springstead and Duval had the data-entry person input it as an 80 for the first semester and 81 for the second semester in the English 2 course.

On Jan. 24, Sweeney brought another grade change form to Duval requesting that the course be changed to English 2 honors, Duval said.

Duval contacted a teacher at Endeavor and was told Compass does not have a program for honors English, she wrote. Furthermore, the teacher learned that the grades actually earned by Sweeney's son on the English 2 test were a 78.5 for semester one and 76.5 for semester two, Duval wrote.

"In addition to the initial testing procedures that were not followed, back in October 2013, the course names, number and grades that were submitted on both forms were false," she said in her letter.

Brown, Sweeney's attorney, said his client believes his son's educational records were reported and recorded incorrectly.

The allegations stem from a miscommunication issue, not an abuse of Sweeney's power as a school board member, said Brown.

Brown said he was retained to represent Sweeney on two fronts: To assist the district in correcting erroneous grades being reported, and to work with the district to identify who in the district violated federal and state law by releasing the details of a student's educational records.

The laws at issue are section 1002.22 of Florida Statutes and FERPA.

"The Sweeney family is saddened and appalled that some person or persons in the school district leaked to the media and the public the details of their son's grades," said Brown. "Grades as well as other information in the education records of all students are confidential and may not be released except under certain exceptions in the law, and none of those exceptions are presented in this case."

"We intend to find out who did it and will hold them accountable," he said.

Brown said as a result of the challenge Sweeney will make, by law the school district must appoint an impartial hearing officer to hear the challenge as to the accuracy of the records.

If the officer finds the records erroneous the district must change them, he said.

"Every parent has the rights set out above as to privacy and to challenge errors in grades and records," Brown said. "It was not improper for Mr. Sweeney to avail himself of these rights as a parent just because he is on the school board."

Former Director of School Support Services for Hernando County Schools, Nick Morana, of Spring Hill, said he's written letters to both Gov. Rick Scott and Attorney General Pam Bondi regarding the allegations against Sweeney.

He has also filed a complaint with the Florida Commission on Ethics, according to documents he provided.

"As a former employee of the school board, I am shocked to learn of the alleged power a school board member can exercise over employees," he wrote.

Sweeney was elected to the Hernando County School Board in 2006 by winning 54 of 56 voting precincts.

Sweeney is an active member of the Florida School Board Legislative Delegation, and he was a teacher and coach for 10 years in Hernando County Schools, according to the district.

Sweeney is a father of three sons, and is married to Fox Chapel Middle School Assistant Principal, Vivian Sweeney.

Sweeney has filed for re-election to the school board District 1 seat, and is running against candidate Mark Johnson.

mreinig@hernandotoday.com

(352) 544-5271

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