The recent decision filed by Rhode Island Education Commission Deborah Gist regarding former Barrington High School teacher Kelly McKenney’s firing and then subsequent appeal included a brief account of what took place prior to the district’s decision to put Ms. McKenney on paid leave.
In late Jan. 2011, a social studies teacher at Barrington High School learned that Ms. McKenney had posted a study guide for a history exam on her portion of the school’s website. Some teachers felt that “this guide was too specific in pointing out answers to questions that would be on the examination.”
Department teachers approach BHS Principal Joe Hurley to share their concerns, and some teachers wanted to void the exam as a result of Ms. McKenney’s study guide, which was available to all students at the school.
The commissioner’s office agreed that Ms. McKenney’s study guide was too specific and “contradicted the academic premises upon which the official study guide was based.”
However, the office did not find the teacher’s actions to be malicious or insubordinate, and also ruled that a copy of the study guide Ms. McKenney provided Mr. Hurley following the situation had been altered but did not “deceive the principal about the fundamental content” of the study guide.
A few months after the study guide situation, Ms. McKenney allegedly coached two students while they were taking a make-up exam in the school library.
“Ms. McKenney was so specific in the directions she gave to these students that her actions were equivalent to giving the students the required answers and therefore constituted cheating,” stated the commissioner’s decision.
According to the decision, two other teachers in the library saw Ms. McKenney verbally and nonverbally communicate with the students about whether their answers were correct. One of the teachers testified:
“[McKenney] would go through the question and would preface the prompt with context, like historical context about the question, and then they would go through the answer choices, and the student would guess, but when — if the student answered incorrectly the first time, she would nonverbally communicate that that answer was incorrect by inclining her head or raising her eyebrows, and they would go through each of the answers in that way until … it was narrowed down to two, and at that point, if the student guessed correctly, there would be some affirmative body language, and if they guessed incorrectly, it would be either a nonverbal like well, you choose or she would say you know, you decide.”
The commissioner’s office found that Ms. McKenney’s actions undermined the academic integrity of the exam that the two students were taking. Initially, the district also said Ms. McKenney failed to have another teacher cover her class while she helped the two students taking the makeup test. In fact, she did secure some help to monitor the juniors in that class, while she left the seniors unattended.
“We find that McKenney, perhaps out of misguided sympathy for the two students who were at academic risk upon failing the exam, facilitated and fostered through her actions student responses that undermined the academic integrity of the examinations being taken by the two students,” stated the decision.
The commissioner’s office concluded: “This appeal is denied and dismissed and an independent decision is made that appellant McKenney is hereby dismissed for good and just cause from her position as a teacher in the Barrington school system.”