Spring Lake principal resigns after probe into falsifying student grades

SPRING LAKE — A local principal has resigned following findings from an investigation that revealed widespread altering of students’ academic records.

Mike Gilchrist, principal of Spring Lake High School for more than 20 years, officially submitted a letter of resignation on Feb. 10 during a special Board of Education meeting.

Gilchrist was previously placed on paid administrative leave by the Spring Lake school district on Jan. 24 in an email statement by Superintendent Dennis Furton.

Upon findings of the investigation, Furton revealed that 51 grades had been modified involving 31 students instructed by 17 different teachers over the course of an eight-year period.

Due to the district’s binding with the Family Educational Privacy Act (FERPA), the disclosure of any personal identification of specific student records is prohibited.

During the special school board meeting, a roll call vote for accepting the resignation was approved 7-0.

A report will be published to the district’s parents and made available on the district’s website sometime today, school officials said Monday. The report will contain information obtained by the investigation and the decisions made by the school board. Furton said assuring parents transparency during this situation is the utmost priority.

“Parents and the community need to know the conclusions that we reached,” Furton said. “There’s no need for this to be seen as a turning a blind eye or this being swept under a rug.”

Furton also said that the district needs to be geared for any questions that may come their way and respond with timely, clear and direct responses.

“This conduct was limited to just one individual making changes. It’s evident that no one else was involved,” he said. “The staff were completely blindsided by this and were unaware of any of this going on. We have a very limited reach here that we need to clear up and the effects will be cleaned up, too.”

Some of the areas that were impacted by the investigation include Gilchrist’s contract; three policies: conflict of interest, grading policy and anti-fraud policy; and his administrator’s certificate and educator code of ethics.

During the specifics of the investigation, Furton said he came to understand that grade changes typically at the high school were only made by the registrar. However, Furton received anecdotal reports on Jan. 13 of conversations between Gilchrist and certain staff members which paint the picture of an individual who was attempting at spinning the narrative different than what was available on paper. In other words, Gilchrist was finding ways to rationalize the behavior at hand.

After the conclusion of the investigation — which included interviews with the 17 teachers — it was clear the vast majority of the 51 grade changes were made without teacher knowledge or consent. Some of those grade changes were for reasons that were heartfelt and sentimental — students may have been in crisis or experiencing some sort of distress. However, they were still in violations of policy, Furton said.

Since Gilchrist resigned and was not fired, his pension will not be affected.

During the Feb. 10 meeting, Gilchrist apologized to Furton, the Board of Education, the high school’s staff and students, and the community.

While it may take time to repair the trust within the district, Furton explained that the relationships between students and teachers are sacred.

“We don’t take parents’ trust and the community’s trust for granted,” he said. “This is a difficult chapter to work through, but we’ll do it deliberately and honestly. Parents must know that this was the conduct of one individual and not a bigger systems issue. There are already needed steps in place for resolution.”

Furton provided three barricades that will further prohibit any potential grade changes: (1) Limit the access to the ability to change grades in the district’s system to only two individuals: the head technology coordinator and the high school registrar. (2) A form has been developed for grade changes requiring teacher and principal signatures before submission to the registrar for any grade change. (3) Yearly audit of grade changes made by either the curriculum director or the superintendent that will involve a paper trail. That will require a signature by the teacher and principal.

School board member Curt Theune says ensuring this situation never occurs again is imperative.

“We have to rebuild that level of trust,” he said. “There’s going to be a hard copy trail with many signatures by teachers and the principal. But we have to remind people, this does not affect the SAT scores, as all of those weren’t altered. We still maintain a high level of academics here.”

However, Theune praised Gilchrist’s approach and guidance at the high school through a difficult two years battling the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Yes, mistakes were made and I can’t argue that,” Theune said. “But we need to remember the positives of his 21 years as principal. To be able to give these kids graduation, prom, homecoming during the pandemic, he worked out those details to make that happen. He’s a human being that made a mistake.”

Gilchrist was hired by Spring Lake Public Schools in July 2001, around the same time the new high school was unveiled in Spring Lake Township.

The district will have an interim principal, and the position will be posted within the next four to six weeks, with a desired candidate by July 1, school officials said.

This article originally appeared on The Holland Sentinel: Spring Lake principal resigns after probe into falsifying student grades