Don't ask, don't tell

School employees' fear of retribution means they have to keep mum — unless a new law changes that

Three years ago, James Hope — fourth-grade teacher, husband, father of two — posted five questions from the Gwinnett County School District's Gateway exam on the Internet. His contribution to the Concerned Parents of Georgia website was anonymous, but when he was later questioned by school district officials he says he immediately 'fessed up.

Hope didn't think it was such a big deal.

His original post, still on COPG's site, included these gems from the Gateway exam:

"Science Question: Which of these material [sic] is [sic] synthetic? a) wool b) wood c) nylon d) cotton

Guess what? The word synthetic is not mentioned in any fourth-grade science book. How is this fair??

"I was just telling the public how poorly worded the test was, and that's why the passing score is so low," he says. "I never met a teacher that didn't despise this test. But they're all quiet about it."

After three years of media scrutiny and legal battles, Hope now knows why teachers were so hush-hush.

District officials and the state Professional Standards Commission came down on Hope like an anvil. The commission, which licenses teachers, revoked Hope's teaching certificate. And he says school police threatened him with jail time.

Bernie Kirkland, spokeswoman for the Gwinnett School Superintendent's Office, describes Hope not as a whistleblower but as an employee who violated district policy regarding the confidentiality of Gateway test questions.

PSC officials didn't return Creative Loafing's calls.

Members of the Georgia Association of Educators say horror stories like Hope's discourage teachers from speaking out against school policy or their superiors. Teachers are too fearful of retribution to report problems at school, even if reporting them is in the students' best interest, according to GAE spokesman Bob Cripps.

Hoping to change that, the association is lobbying for legislation called the Whistleblowers' Protection Act for Public School Employees. The law would shelter teachers from retaliation, allowing them to more easily bring to light misbehaving school officials and bad policy.

The legislation could mean that next year, the list of "unsafe" schools released by the Georgia Department of Education might actually have a few names on it. Despite scandals surrounding Gwinnett County Public Schools' failure to accurately report disciplinary incidents, not a single Georgia school was deemed unsafe this year, according to an Aug. 1 report from the DOE.

The legislation could also empower teachers to report inaccuracies or problems with the standardized tests that now put schools on probation — with punishments including students' mandatory transfers to better-performing schools if parents request them.

During the last legislative session, the whistleblowers' bill unanimously passed the Senate but hit a wall in the House Rules Committee, where superintendents and school board members lobbied against it.

"I just don't think there is a need for this type of legislation," says Kirkland. "Because there is no reprisal against speaking out here."

Herb Garrett, who heads the Georgia School Superintendents Association, says he will continue to fight the bill. "We are adamantly opposed to the legislation and worked as hard as we could to be sure it was held up [in the Rules Committee]," he says. "It goes far, far beyond the title of the bill."

Garrett says his problem with the bill is that it forces whistleblower cases to go directly to the courts, rather than letting the school board or the PSC try to settle the dispute first.

He takes issue with the possibility that school employees who win their cases could be compensated with a sum three times their salaries, as well as with punitive damages. That could get expensive, he points out.

Teachers gearing up for the bill's resurrection, however, are less concerned with cost than with putting an end to scenarios like Hope's.

Hope says he had appealed to both the school board and PSC to get his teaching license back. But they wouldn't budge. He says that if he'd accepted their ruling, he would have lost his career for an action the Constitution says he had every right to take.

Sen. Rene Kemp, D-Hinesville, who sponsored the bill, says reprisals like the one against Hope is common. He says he has a file full of complaints from teachers who've been intimidated by superiors for simply trying to do the right thing.

"I would be intimidated if I was a single mother with three children," Kemp says. "So [teachers] just go on with the status quo."

He says he'll continue in the next session to fight for his bill to become law.