Three Pasco County teachers made sure students passed industry certification tests and did so hundreds of times over four years in a criminal scheme that was all about money, authorities announced Friday.
They said some of the students did not know they were taking exams.
Arrested Thursday were Robert Herrington, 38; Harold Martin III, 47; and Kathleen Troutman, 31, all former teachers at Hudson High School. They were charged with scheming to defraud, a second-degree felony.
Troutman and Herrington have resigned their school jobs. Martin is on unpaid leave.
“Plain and simple, this was a cheating scandal,” Florida Department of Law Enforcement Special Agent in Charge Mark Brutnell said at a news conference. “Greed and cheating.”
The case involves a web of agencies and organizations that include Agriculture Education Services & Technology, known as AEST, a subsidiary of the Florida Farm Bureau.
The subsidiary works with the Department of Education to provide tests that give students the credentials they need for careers in agriculture. When students pass the tests, school districts like Pasco get bonus money that they use to fund the agriculture classes. Teachers get bonuses too — $25 or $50, depending on the test.
The exams are supposed to be administered with independent proctors, and without written materials.
But that’s not what happened at Hudson High, according to the FDLE.
The agency alleges the three teachers took the exams, then made copies of them that they fashioned into study guides. Between 2017 and 2021, they allegedly administered the tests improperly, sometimes allowing students to bring their study guides with them and sometimes feeding them the answers.
They enlisted some students to photograph exam pages that were then used to update the study guides, the FDLE said.
State officials allege the three teachers pocketed a combined $36,000. They estimate the total damages at more than $700,000, including money the district might have to return to AEST for bonuses that it did not rightfully earn.
Brutnell said he was most offended to learn the teachers engineered passing scores for learning disabled students who might not have known they were taking exams.
On paper, the results were phenomenal. An audit by AEST revealed that Hudson High students were completing exams in as little as five minutes that normally take 30 to 45 minutes.
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“Hudson High School had a higher pass rate than any other school in Florida,” Brutnell said. “Hudson High School issued the most certificates statewide, 10 times the number of the school behind them.”
School district spokesperson Stephen Hegarty said school officials had a sense something was unusual in the fall of 2020. But Hegarty said the district did not have access at the time to all of AEST’s data.
The following year, after AEST received an anonymous tip, the organization conducted its statewide audit and took its concerns to the school district, Hegarty said. At that point the Pasco Sheriff’s Office was brought in, then the FDLE.
At the news conference, Brutnell praised AEST officials for their diligence in pursuing the investigation. “To their credit, they jumped right on it,” he said. “They didn’t wait. They were very cooperative, forthright, transparent.”
He also praised the school district, which has tightened its testing protocols and controls districtwide. Those measures include a multi-panel review of all testing data.
“We’re working with AEST to determine how do we do right by the students now,” Hegarty said.
More than 1,000 tests at Hudson High have been invalidated, and arrangements are being made so the affected students can retake them for free.
In the meantime, Brutnell said, the investigation is ongoing.
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