Forged paperwork allowed special ed students’ move into GED program at youth lockup

By: - September 5, 2022 6:30 am

Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center Principal Martha Whitfield wrote in an email that her signature was forged on documents allowing the transfer of special education students to a GED program. Here she is seen addressing graduates during graduation ceremonies for four youth Aug. 8 at the treatment center in Alexander. (Stephen B. Thornton/Arkansas Department of Human Services)

Staff at Arkansas’ youth lockups forged the paperwork of students with disabilities to transfer them from special education classes to the GED program, internal emails show.

The newly uncovered records further explain a suspicious increase in incarcerated youths obtaining GEDs last year.

A state investigation in April found that teachers at the youth lockups — which are run by a private contractor, Rite of Passage — were providing test answers to GED students and improperly removing students from the special education program.

One of ROP’s top education officials disclosed the alleged forgery to the Nevada-based company’s Arkansas administrators in a September 2021 email, which was obtained by the Arkansas Advocate in a public records request. 

“While I don’t plan on sharing this with [the Arkansas Division of Youth Services], these forms were forged with my signature,” wrote Martha Whitfield, the principal at the Arkansas Juvenile Assessment and Treatment Center in Alexander. 

“I am not sure who did this, but this explains why I was not tracking that so many SPED kids were being transferred to GED.”

The disclosure came as the Division of Youth Services was investigating Rite of Passage’s education program after a teacher was caught on video providing test answers to students at the youth lockup in Mansfield.

Related: Probe finds cheating in GED program at Arkansas’ youth lockups

The forgery allegations weren’t included in the Division of Youth Services’’ final report, issued in April. The report did include instances when procedures weren’t followed, allowing special education students to more quickly transfer to the GED program. 

A DYS spokesman said the agency was made aware of the forgery allegation.

“It is our understanding that ROP addressed this internally and it is a closed matter,” said Gavin Lesnick, the communications chief for the Arkansas Department of Human Services.

Asked how the allegations were addressed and whether they were referred to law enforcement, Marlon Morrow, the executive director over ROP’s Arkansas facilities, sent a statement. 

“This matter was resolved nearly [a] year ago with transparency and in collaboration with DYS,” Morrow said in an email. “With this behind us, we continue to work in partnership to provide quality education for youth. Our agency may not comment on personnel actions or matters involving the youth in its care.”

DYS officials have maintained that ROP has been a good partner and that they’ve seen marked improvements in education and other programs at the four juvenile treatment centers run by the company.

The Advocate hasn’t been able to determine who might have committed the forgery, which under certain criteria is a felony in Arkansas, and whether they remain employed at any of the juvenile facilities.

In the fallout from the Department of Youth Services investigation, three ROP educators resigned. DYS substantiated cheating by two of them in its investigation. Students told investigators a third teacher also provided improper assistance on GED tests.

As for Whitfield’s suggestion that she didn’t “plan on sharing this with DYS,” Lesnick said agency officials didn’t believe it indicated “an insistence that ROP withhold these allegations.”

“While I am not able to provide the exact date that the forgery allegations were brought to our attention, we were informed about them and as a result do not have concerns about the processes that took place prior to that occurring,” Lesnick said. 

“It is important to note that this is one component of a larger, comprehensive investigation that resulted in the removal of involved staff and other changes that have strengthened this program. We are committed to serving the youths in our custody and will continue to take steps to ensure that our partners, including ROP, are also acting in their best interest.”

The state’s juvenile ombudsman, Brooke Digby, did have significant concerns about Whitfield’s message, even calling for Whitfield’s termination. 

The ombudsman is an independent position created by the Arkansas Legislature to ensure children in state custody receive appropriate services and are safe.

“Whitfield knowingly and willingly admits to withholding information about state educational documents being forged,” Digby wrote to top DYS and ROP officials in a May email, obtained by the Advocate under the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. 

“This information should have been immediately turned into DYS to investigate; however, other ROP leaders obviously supported her decision to withhold information from DYS. To this day, the DYS investigation team never received any reports of forgery. I spoke with them this morning. I’m saddened to see so many ROP leaders support this type of decision.”

Arkansas juvenile treatment facilities house juveniles, who can be up to 21 years old, under court order for sentences and treatment. Typically, there are between 200-300 in custody at these centers. 

ROP took over operation of all four of the state’s juvenile treatment centers in July 2020. (It has run the facility in Alexander since 2016.)

Rite of Passage’s contract with the state expires next year, and state officials plan to issue another request for proposals for ROP or any other companies to bid on operating the facilities.

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Hunter Field
Hunter Field

Hunter Field is a veteran Arkansas journalist whose reporting on the state has carried him from military air strips in northwest Arkansas to soybean fields in the Arkansas delta. He spent the better part of the last decade investigating and reporting on Arkansas government and politics. For three years, he covered education policy, medical marijuana and the Arkansas General Assembly as part of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s Capitol Bureau. Most recently, he was the Democrat-Gazette's projects editor, leading the newspaper's investigative team. Hunter got his start in journalism covering sports for The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. A Memphis native, he enjoys smoking barbecue, kayaking and fishing in his free time.