Columbus School Scandal and Big Data

Public Records Prove Essential in a Columbus City Schools Scandal

By Aubrey Sinclair 

Data tampering in Columbus City Schools changed the face of the district when Columbus Dispatch education writers Jennifer Smith Richards and Bill Bush revealed the scandal in June 2012.

Smith Richards and Bush often dig through public records to add data to their stories, but this time was unlike any other. 

They discovered that 2.8 million absences had been deleted by principals. In some cases, up to 500 grades had been changed per day. Students were also withdrawn and attendance records were erased. 

Doug Caruso, editor and supervisor of Smith Richards and Bush, said the day after principals were invited to meetings at data centers, thousands of records were changed. 

It was pretty apparent that principals were told to do this, said Caruso. 

“They couldn’t have thought that was OK,” said Smith Richards.  “It’s like beyond what you could probably defend.” 

The state auditor and FBI are now involved in an ongoing investigation, but prior to requesting public records in 2012, the scandal had only been an idea.   

Smith Richards found out that the superintendent at the time, Gene Harris, was asking principals to stop altering some of the data. She became curious and started looking into how much data was being altered and why. 

“So my first thought was, we were on to something big and we needed to expand on it and that we needed to get more information about it,” said Caruso.

This specific set of data took months to get, but on average, public records take about six weeks. The requested data contained 200 spreadsheets and data files, said Smith Richards.

“And so we just have to know that whenever something becomes available, we have a limited amount of time if we want to break news out of it,” said Smith Richards.

Other news outlets typically request the same public records, making it even more important to get the story out first, said Smith Richards.

The first story published was about the millions of absences that had been deleted during the course of several years.

Smith Richards explained that without the data from the public records, the story written would have been “a story of opinions.”

“It adds a scientific answer, frankly, to your journalism.  It takes it from abstract to concrete,” said Smith Richards.  “I think that’s really important.”

This school year, significantly less absences have been deleted.  

“I mean think about it, if you get caught doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing, whether you had bad intent or not, and you know that somebody is watching you, I think you’d probably change your way,” said Smith Richards.

To this day, Columbus Dispatch reporters still use the same data sets they used to write the first story. So far, 130 stories on data tampering have been written using the original data sets.