In the wake of heightened college admissions scrutiny, one group is keeping an eye on those hoping to sneak their way into high schools, too. The organization Government Crime Stoppers is offering rewards of up to $5,000 for anonymous tips about Dallas suburbanites cheating their way into Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts.
On the organization’s website, a privately funded coalition of former law enforcement personnel encourages anyone to anonymously report “information regarding admission irregularities at Booker T. High School or other magnet schools.” In the past, wealthy families have rented apartments, paid Dallas residents’ utility bills and bought second homes in Dallas — all in an effort to land one of the limited Booker T. spots available. This tip campaign hopes to illuminate and ultimately litigate this behavior, and thereby reduce or eliminate the number of suburban students taking spaces that might otherwise go to qualifying Dallas residents.
Booker T. is a nationally renowned arts magnet school attended by Erykah Badu, Norah Jones and a smattering of other high-caliber artists. Recently, the school has entrenched its status as a formidable launching pad to elite colleges like The Julliard School.
The school is home to four conservatories: dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Each spring, roughly 900 students audition for the 40 or so slots available to freshmen in each conservatory. A few sophomore slots are available, too. Aspiring artists with and without Dallas ISD addresses are able to audition for a spot, with Dallas students receiving priority consideration. Unsurprisingly, that possible advantage has led to some unethical behavior from wealthy suburban families. An investigation by the Lakewood Advocate published in May 2019 revealed rampant cheating practices like those described above, as parents clamored for one of the coveted conservatory spots.
Following the investigation, Dallas ISD and the high school both attempted to crack down on cheaters. Students’ fall 2019 orientation packets announced a stringent new verification policy, which included home visits to check that families do indeed reside in Dallas. The district also threatened expulsion and legal action. This fall, DISD took a victory lap, announcing that a total of 30 students withdrew in August, ostensibly out of fear. They also noted that application numbers dipped.
But the threats haven’t appeared to work: Last month, the Advocate reported that at least half of the 15 spots vacated by freshmen were ultimately filled by students from the suburbs, and the article also mentions that 34 students who attended suburban middle schools but submitted a Dallas utility bill are still enrolled at Booker T. Additional reporting by The Dallas Morning News confirmed that residency requirements went largely unexamined at a recent open house event for prospective students.
We reached out to Booker T. for comment, and they directed us to Dallas ISD. DISD did not immediately respond for comment.
According to two former students who spoke to us on the condition of anonymity, Booker T. students and families have long considered cheating practices an “open secret” on campus. Similar to last year's Varsity Blues scandal — which revealed a list of wealthy (some even famous, like Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman) parents whose tactics bought their children spots in elite schools — these practices continue unpunished, partially, because students fear the social repercussions of telling on their classmates. The tip campaign launched by Government Crime Stoppers may alleviate those fears.
Thanks to a third-party service provider and code encryption, the organization says all tips will be completely anonymous. If a tip leads to a prosecution, the tipper may be eligible for the $5,000 award. This posting is the first thing visitors see when perusing the Crime Stoppers website. On its right, they’ll see another call for tips: $10,000 to anyone with knowledge of college admissions bribery.
Patricia Martinez, the organization’s executive director, says Government Crime Stoppers is interested in “all kinds of corruption,” which piqued their interest in high school and college admissions fraud. “What makes this type of case stand out was the probability of more information being out there,” she says.
Martinez, a former San Antonio police officer with 34 years of experience, says her organization has received “quite a few tips” since the Advocate story was published on Feb. 17, and they have passed the tips along to the North Texas Crime Commission and Dallas ISD.
“Ultimately, you have to have a complainant to initiate charges, which I believe would be the school board,” Martinez says.