Allegation heats up Edison grade controversy

A vice principal at Edison High School on Wednesday echoed a teacher's charge that someone improperly changed a football player's failing grade last spring to an A, keeping him eligible to play this fall.

And like math teacher Jeff Powell, who said this week that he had flunked the student, Vice Principal Benere Smith said he was rebuffed when he reported the problem to Principal Rick Lopez.

Smith said Lopez told him without explanation that the grade would stand. Shortly afterward, Lopez gave the vice principal a written order not to talk about it further, he said.

"He put a gag order out on me," Smith said.

Smith, a 32-year employee of the school who has been a vice principal for seven years, said he came forward Wednesday to back up Powell and has no grudge against the principal or the football program.

"These guys are hurting children, that's my motive," Smith said. "It's all about how they're handling children or mishandling children."

Lopez declined to discuss the accusations. "I'd absolutely love to sit down and clear the air on everything I know, but I can't," he said.

Smith said he heard allegations of the grade change on campus last month and twice discussed the issue with the teacher before taking his concerns to Lopez.

He also looked at attendance records that he said show the student could not have earned an A because he missed 66 of a possible 90 days in the class.

"We're sending the wrong message when a kid is absent 66 days and gets an A," Smith said. "That invalidates every kid's grade on campus."

Like Powell, Smith declined to name the athlete because of student privacy laws.

Edison is top-ranked in the Central Section and No. 7 in the state.

Last week, Edison was cleared of several alleged eligibility improprieties -- including the grade-change incident -- by the California Interscholastic Federation, which governs high school athletics in the state. Jim Crichlow, CIF commissioner of the Central Section, said he closed the probe after speaking with Lopez.

Fresno Unified School District spokeswoman Susan Bedi said a private investigator is still looking into the same allegations on behalf of district officials.

Wednesday evening, Bedi provided a memo dated Sept. 5 addressed to Edison administrative staff from Lopez that directed everyone not to discuss student performance and eligibility: "It is important for all staff to remember these conversations may well be damaging to a student and are breaching issues of student confidentiality."

Trustees Cal Johnson and Manuel Núñez said they were briefed on the Edison incident in a closed session of the school board on Wednesday night, but they said they could not discuss the case because it was a confidential personnel issue.

Smith said he has been suspended with pay twice by Lopez since raising his concerns about the grade change.

Smith said Lopez suspended him -- the first time for four days, the second for two -- because he didn't properly notify the principal he would be missing school. Smith, who said he thought he had provided the proper notice, was in Texas for four days on family business and later took two days off to observe Ramadan, a Muslim holy month.

Smith said that before these incidents he had no problems with Lopez in his first two years as principal.

The vice principal also said he's not going public in retaliation for the suspensions. And he said he is not concerned with being disciplined for coming forward because he's going to retire in December.

"Even if I wasn't going to retire I wouldn't be concerned with it, because I know I've got right in my heart," he said.