Friday, November 03, 2006

Ex-HISD worker in dropout scandal cleared before trial

“The development closes the chapter on the "Texas miracle," where six Houston Independent School District employees were reprimanded for underreporting at least 3,000 dropouts districtwide.” -Angela

Nov. 2, 2006, 9:30AM
Ex-HISD worker in dropout scandal cleared before trial
County admits it can't prove case, drops felony count


Harris County prosecutors drop charge in dropout case

Harris County prosecutors dropped their case Wednesday against a former
Houston ISD employee accused of falsifying Sharpstown High School's
dropout records, saying new details would make proving their case

Two days before a jury was to be selected in the case against Kenneth
Cuadra, Assistant District Attorney Terese Buess asked state District
Judge Brock Thomas to dismiss the felony charge of tampering with a
government document.

"Our analysis concluded that it would be impossible to rebut Cuadra's
defenses," Buess said in a statement.

The development closes the chapter on the "Texas miracle," where six
Houston Independent School District employees were reprimanded for
underreporting at least 3,000 dropouts districtwide. Cuadra, the only
person criminally charged in connection with the scandal, was accused
of removing the names of 30 students — mostly Hispanic freshmen and
sophomores — from Sharpstown High School's dropout report.

Prosecutors will not seek any other charges.

"The statute of limitations ran out last October. ... It's over," Buess

Cuadra, 33, could have faced up to 20 years in prison if convicted. He
sold his home to help pay legal fees that have accumulated since his
indictment a year ago.

"We're just so grateful," Cuadra said late Wednesday. "Mission

He referred other questions to his wife, Lorett Cuadra.

This lone criminal case may never had gotten so far if Cuadra had
testified to the grand jury last year, Buess said.

Conversations with the defense attorneys this week made the prosecution
doubt that they could prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, she
said. She would not provide details.

"There was new information that they sat down and provided," Buess said
in a telephone interview Wednesday. "This is the first time this
particular information had become available to us as far as timing on
what he claimed he had done."

Cuadra's statement

In a February 2003 statement included in the court file, Cuadra stated
that "some of Sharpstown's administrators approached him about cleaning
up the school's student data for a report to the district, and he went
along but then changed his mind and put the data back the way he found

A few months later, Cuadra told a supervisor that "he did not change
the dropout data but that he gave his password to someone else who must
have done it." He later said he removed about half the names, but then
replaced the data the next day, according to court records.

In her written statement, Buess said rebutting Cuadra's defense would
be difficult, "particularly because the local database used in 2002 by
HISD at Sharpstown High School had no internal audit tracking system
that could conclusively document which user ID had altered the local
database information or to determine exactly when any such alterations
had been made."

Defense lawyer Matt Hennessy and his co-counsel John Parras praised
Buess' decision.

"I'm gratified that we had such a conscientious, hard-working
prosecutor who was willing to look at all the facets of the case,"
Hennessy said. "There are times when you should keep all your powder
dry for the battle to come. This was not one of those times. The
prosecutor saw the evidence and did the right thing."

Lorett Cuadra called Buess' decision to drop the case "bittersweet,"
adding that the family had been looking forward to their day in court.
Jury selection was scheduled for Friday; testimony was to begin Monday.

Name has been cleared

"It's going to be the first night in four years that Kenneth's going to
sleep without facing jail. His name has been cleared, and all the glory
goes to God," Lorett Cuadra said.

Cuadra rejected several deals that would have allowed him to avoid jail
time by pleading either guilty or no contest. Conceding to that — even
if it just carried one hour of community service — would be dishonest
and set a bad example for the couple's 6-year-old son and 8-year-old
daughter, Lorett Cuadra said.

"We could not go through life and have our kids ask us one day, 'Why
did you compromise if you were never guilty?' " she said. "It would
have been a lot easier for me to say, 'Bow down to this.' Easy is not
the way to go. So many people settle. So many people say, 'They're
stronger than me.' ... We couldn't do it."

Lorett Cuadra said her husband was never asked to testify against
higher-ranking HISD officials.

"They were just trying to get a scapegoat," she said.

Houston Federation of Teachers President Gayle Fallon said her group
will pay up to $35,000 of Cuadra's legal bills because the case was

It's a shame that the state forced the family to waste so much money
fighting the case, she said.

"I think that the DA never had a case and that it's just very sad that
Kenny had to go through this," Fallon said.

HISD spokesman Terry Abbott would not comment on the specifics. The
school district took action three years ago — suspending Cuadra without
pay for 10 days and transferring him to another department.

"We moved forward a long time ago," he said. "We used the awful events
of a few years ago at Sharpstown to galvanizing the public around the
idea that we all have to do something about the dropout problem."

The district has since launched an aggressive dropout recovery program
that has included a conference and annual walks through Houston
neighborhoods to find children who are not attending school.

"This certainly focused the public's attention on the dropout issue and
rightfully so," Abbott said.

'There's no victory here'

Robert Kimball, a former Sharpstown assistant principal who was
expected to testify in the case, said the decision is anything but a

"He suffered for 3 1/2 , four years. There's no victory here," he said.
"It's been really hard on his family and his children. He's been
suffering, and it's been emotionally draining on him and his family."

He said he admires the family's tenacity.

"If there's any victory, it's the Cuadras exposing the very poor
decisions of the school district," he said. "It was smart of Kenneth
Cuadra not to settle. ... He stood on principle. I support him 100

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