Fresno Unified denies Bullard valedictorian’s accusations of cheating

Fresno Unified is denying allegations of a culture of cheating at Bullard High School after a student made the claims in a commentary published by The Bee.

Gregory Weaver, a valedictorian at Bullard High who is headed to Stanford University, said in a Valley Voices column that a graduation speech he wrote that was critical of the district was rejected by the school.

In what Weaver says was the speech he had hoped to deliver, he describes the Bullard campus as violent and claims teachers helped students cheat on tests in order to secure better graduation rates. He also calls out Fresno Unified Superintendent Michael Hanson, saying he failed to fulfill several promises that would have helped the school.

But the district is denying Weaver’s accusations and says that his piece in The Bee was not the speech rejected by a panel of Bullard teachers and counselors. Three commencement speeches were selected out of seven submitted by the 53 valedictorians at Bullard High and were judged for content and the student’s public speaking skills, said district spokesman Miguel Arias.

Arias said neither Weaver – nor any other student – has brought the cheating allegations to administrators in the past.

I can see why they find it disturbing. But killing the messenger is an old and desperate tactic.

Bullard High student Gregory Weaver

“Although we respect the student’s right to submit the letter to The Fresno Bee, we are deeply disappointed what he submitted to The Bee was not even remotely the same speech he delivered to the panel at Bullard High School. Secondly, many of the accounts made in the letter to The Fresno Bee – the allegations of cheating and low expectations – do not reflect the high standards set at Bullard or any other Fresno Unified school,” Arias said in a statement Thursday.

In what the district says is the speech Weaver submitted to judges, there are no accusations of cheating or specific examples of violence. But in that speech, Weaver is critical of the school’s overcrowding issues and ongoing construction on campus.

In its response Thursday, the district also pointed to Weaver’s relationship with local author Mark Arax – a longtime critic of Fresno Unified and its top leaders.

According to emails released by the district, Arax emailed Bullard Principal Carlos Castillo on May 13, saying he considers Weaver his “third son” and questioning why his speech – which Arax helped edit – wasn’t selected.

“Gregory is too classy a kid to trash the other speech. But I am left to wonder how Gregory could not have been chosen for the honor. He is your top grad, the only Bullard grad to be accepted this year into Stanford, the most difficult university in the country to gain entrance. Is the winning speech better than Gregory’s or merely more politically correct?” Arax said in the email. “I would suggest that you read Gregory’s speech alongside the winning speech and compare them for originality and cohesiveness, to name just a few qualities. Then tell me that Gregory’s speech was not deserving of the honor.”

The allegations were never brought to Bullard’s attention by this student or any other.

Fresno Unified spokesman Miguel Arias

Castillo replied that he was not part of the judges’ panel and that he stands by the panel’s decision.

Weaver said that Arax has been his mentor and coach for a decade but that he did not write his piece in The Bee for him. Weaver said he stands by the allegations about Bullard High.

“I wrote The Bee story. I own it. Like any piece of writing, it evolved from draft to draft,” Weaver said. “I find the reaction of the administrators at Bullard and Fresno Unified to be ironic. For all I’ve managed to achieve, they still want to believe that a student couldn’t write such comments.

“What I wrote happens to come straight out of my experiences at Bullard. I can see why they find it disturbing. But killing the messenger is an old and desperate tactic.”

Arax called Weaver “a remarkable kid” and said that his own tumultuous history with Fresno Unified has influenced the district’s response. Last year, Arax criticized district leaders’ involvement in no-bid contracts that are now under investigation, singling out Hanson and Arias in his blog.

“No one is going to put any words in the mouth of Gregory Weaver,” Arax said. “For Fresno Unified to even imply such a thing is lowdown and dirty. This is about (Arias) trying to ruin the reputation of an outstanding student to get back at me for my journalism.”

Mackenzie Mays: 559-441-6412, @MackenzieMays