HOUSTON – “I feel like the butt end of a very sick and cruel joke,” said Dommanic Ortiz.
Standing alongside his Mercedes Benz SUV, you might think Ortiz rides in style.
But when he opens the door, you quickly realize that car, is more than just his transportation.
It’s where he lives.
“That’s my pallet right there,” said Ortiz pointing to a pile of blankets across his backseat. “I sleep on that side. All my clothes are on this side.”
Ortiz is 45 years old and homeless. It’s a situation that he says didn’t have to happen.
That’s because Ortiz was offered a job at Anheuser- Busch’s Houston bottling plant last year after he was laid off.
“Something to keep me not only on my feet, but to prosper,” he told the I-Team.
All that stood between Ortiz and the job was proving he graduated high school.
It should have been no problem. He showed the I-Team a picture of himself in the Forest Brook High School yearbook.
Ortiz was wearing his cap and gown, pictured with his classmates in the class of 1987.
But when Ortiz went to pick up a copy of his high school transcript, he couldn’t believe what he was told.
“There was no record of transcripts,” explained Ortiz. “No records of anything. No records of grades, graduation, nothing.”
It was like he never attended Forest Brook at all.
“In retrospect, I wish that was the case,” Ortiz said.
So what happened?
When Ortiz attended Forest Brook it was part of the North Forest Independent School District.
The district’s schools were so plagued with problems and scandals, the state finally ordered it closed last summer.
Houston Independent School District was told to take over and annex North Forest.
That meant North Forest's record keeping problems became HISD's problem.
“Had you ever seen anything like the records you received from North Forest?” The I-Team asked HISD’s Manager of Records Brita Lindsey.
“Never,” said Lindsey, “never.”
She admits no one knows how many North Forest records are missing.
“We really don’t know if it’s the tip of the iceberg,” Lindsey said. “We only know there’s a problem when the former student comes in and we can’t find their record.”
Former students like Tarwanza Williams.
“It’s like your identity is gone,” said Williams.
The former Forest Brook student tried to get a copy of her high school records earlier this year.
“The lady kept asking me, ‘did you withdraw?” Williams recalled. “I told her ‘no, I didn’t withdraw, I graduated.”
But when HISD pulled her Forest Brook records, 12th grade was missing.
“There’s absolutely nothing,” Williams said, looking at her transcript. “Blank across the board.”
So the I-Team went to Austin looking for answers.
“Record keeping of a student is a basic function of a school district,” explained Texas Education Agency spokesman Gene Acuna.
TEA monitored and eventually ran the troubled North Forest district during the mid-2000s.
“Some record keeping issues were brought to our attention,” Acuna said.
Acuna says North Forest blamed many of those issues on flooding and vandalism.
But that didn’t happen for years, even decades after Williams and Ortiz graduated.
“Did North Forest ISD let down these students?” The I-Team asked Lindsey.
“I think the system let down the students,” she replied. So why didn’t TEA do more to stop and fix record keeping issues?
“It really comes down to what is it that needed to be fixed,” Acuna said. “Is it the process North Forest was taking in regard to student records? We believe that was pointed out to them. Did we have the authority to go in and force the district to do that? We did not have that authority. Was it making them re-create the student records after the floods that hit that area? Quite honestly, we weren’t aware that the student records were impacted in that way until many years later. And, by that time, it was very difficult to re-create the records.”
Making things worse for students, TEA maintains only basic information on individual students and that information only goes back to 1990.
That means for former students like Ortiz, their past may be gone for good.
“By them losing this, basically it’s like I wasted all those years of high school for nothing,” said Ortiz. “Which is totally a crock.”
For Williams, there’s a happier ending.
While the I-Team was at HISD headquarters, workers found records of her graduation.
But, those workers discovered something else.
North Forest had two totally different academic transcripts for Williams.
Lindsey admitted the discovery means sorting out the patchwork of records the district was given will be even more difficult.
“We don’t know what happened,” Lindsey explained. “But evidently (the system) is broken, or was broken because we should not have this,” she said holding the two copies of Williams’ permanent record.
Along with missing records, HISD also found records without names and records that are illegible.
District administrators say if you have your high school diploma, they may be able to certify that you graduated.
However, both Williams and Ortiz say they’ve lost track of their diplomas in the years since they graduated.
TEA recommends checking with your local school district if you have questions about your transcripts.
If your records are lost, former students may request copies of any information TEA has stored about them by e-mailing a request to firstname.lastname@example.org.