In June of 2016, a teacher noticed his students were ineligible to participate in a championship track meet. The key runners were in serious breach of the school’s attendance policy. Upon noticing his students’ ineligibility, Newburgh Free Academy teacher and former Girls Varsity Basketball Coach, Richard Desiderio was met with the decision to report the students ineligibility to administrators in his building or to keep the information to himself and allow the students to compete regardless of all their absences.
“I had two students in my class in June 2016 that were competing in state track meet in Syracuse but they were ineligible as per our attendance policy to be competing. It was a big deal, it was a state track meet. They were competing ineligible, ridiculously ineligible,” said Desiderio. “There’s kids from other districts that aren’t competing but our kids are. I just happened to be looking at the attendance at the end of the quarter I noticed this. I didn’t know what to do, I didn’t want the kids to get hurt, it was a dilemma, a conflict for me. My job was to report it. I stumbled on this. It wasn’t as if I was looking for this.”
When Desiderio discovered the athletes were ineligible he brought it to the attention of the principal of the school, and heard nothing more about the issue. The students went on to compete in their meet and when looking back at the attendance record five days later, Disiderio discovered the record was changed to make the student eligible.
When Desiderio saw no significant change or action in the situation he took his concerns to the New York State Education Department and Orange County District Attorney David Hoovler.
The grand jury report released on April 4, started as a look into absenteeism, then expanding its search into the APEX Online Learning program, a program used to give students the opportunity to recover credits or take extra online courses.
The report found a complete disregard for attendance policies when it comes to student athletes, and misuses of the APEX system when it comes to credit recovery.
The Grand Jury was pulled together on January 10, 2019, reviewing data and listening to 15 witnesses over the course of six weeks to create its report. They decided no criminal charges would be made, but discovered a failing system and created recommendations to remediate the issues discovered.
The jury reviewed attendance of student athletes from 2014 through 2017. They found during this period at least 17 athletes from Boys soccer, Boys and Girls Track, Baseball, Football, and Wrestling had 29 instances of competing while ineligible.
They also found 1100 instances of the district’s attendance code being broken by the attendance office and by building administrators, such as a principal or assistant principal to approve the changes.
The grand jury report looked at the attendance record of over 110 student athletes, they averaged 100 individual class absences per year or more. The student with the highest number of absences missed a total of 3,548 classes in his or her four years at NFA. That is approximately 88.7 full days of school or missing almost half of the school year.
The report discovered a trend of student athletes showing chronic absenteeism outside of their season, yet showed almost perfect attendance during their season.
When Desiderio began to shed light on this broken system, he believes the district began to take disciplinary action against him because he went to the District Attorney and the state.
“One hundred percent I believe they took action against me because I spoke up. To me it’s not even debatable,” said Desiderio. “I’ve been in the district for 12 years with a reputation of building the girls basketball program up and all of a sudden I have all these issues after I reported the attendance. I did things the right way and they went after me when they kept hiring back people that did not do the right thing. I’ve had to live with that for three years.”
The district maintains that the statements made by Desiderio are false specifically in regards to his meeting with board members and administrative officials.
“As a matter of public record that needs to be addressed is a statement made to television and public media alleging that certain specific board members and central office administration knew of concern regarding violations of policy with regard to violation of attendance policy, participation in games and grading and did nothing about it,” said NECSD District Attorney David Shaw. “To set the record straight when the matters were raised to them immediate steps were taken to investigate and the reports were made to the board of education to address the matters.”
Desiderio clarified that he was not stating there was no investigation, but the same issues continue after their investigation took place.
Superintendent Dr. Roberto Padilla outlined at a special board of education meeting on Monday night with steps the district has taken and will continue to take to rectify the situation.
“My team and I have had some time to go through the report but more time is required. I am angry I am upset and I’m disappointed,” said Padilla. “We have continued to work very hard. In all honesty most of our time has been spent setting up systems and structures that are lacking. Establishing structures that work takes time.”
In regards to attendance Padilla pointed out a $220,000 ScholarChip system to be put in place, where students have to swipe in for attendance purposes. The district also hired social workers, attendance aides and in 2017 hired a Director of Special Projects to oversee attendance across the district.
To look at student athlete eligibility the district hired an Assistant Director of Physical Education and Health to give the Athletic Director, Edgar Glascott the proper amount of time needed to focus on athletics. The school is going to look at the attendance system set in place to ban adjustments to attendance after five days.
The second part of the grand jury investigation was a look into the APEX program, which Hoovler attributed higher graduation rates to. The grand jury came to the conclusion that there was a failure to adhere to the best practices, one teacher in the district has 325 overrides between 2016 and 2018 on the APEX system. The report states that overides were common among teachers using APEX.
Assistant Superintendent, Lisamarie Spindler attributed the overrides to outside work being done to contribute to the grades and course content being edited to fit with the teacher’s curriculum. They are going to require reasons for overrides in the comment box, students will not be allowed to retake the exam after three attempts, and a weekly report of APEX will be requested of the district.
Spindler believes course short completion times is related to the fact that multiple APEX courses make up each exam.
The district will focus on properly training any new staff members to ensure that the system is not misused and they will look to change the software settings to omit manual overrides, cap the number of quizzes, and limit the manual input of scores.
Padilla invited the New York State Education Department to look into the issues raised by the grand jury report. The district will take a deeper look into the report to see what other steps can be taken to create a stronger system.