Law & Courts Photo Essay

A Photographer’s View of the Atlanta Schools Test-Cheating Trial

By Education Week Photo Staff — April 20, 2015 2 min read
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Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter expresses his outrage to defense attorneys who claimed his sentencing of three former school administrators for the Atlanta school district was unfair. Judge Baxter declared they were “at the top of the chain” during sentencing on April 14 in Atlanta.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff photographer Kent D. Johnson was the courtroom photographer during the landmark trial in Atlanta that resulted in the conviction of 11 former Atlanta school employees for falsifying test results to collect bonuses or keep their jobs. Johnson shares his thoughts about covering the months-long trial and its impact on the community.

Former testing coordinator Donald Bullock holds his head as his defense attorney, Hurl Taylor, accepts a sentencing deal on April 14 in Atlanta. Bullock was sentenced to 5 years probation, 6 months of weekends in jail, a $5,000 fine, and 1,500 hours of community service. All but one of 10 former Atlanta public school educators convicted in a widespread conspiracy to inflate student scores on standardized tests were sentenced to jail time.  Another defendant convicted in the case will be sentenced later this year.

I’d just returned from lunch with a couple of the defense attorneys on April 1, and as we turned the corner, I remember my heart racing as I saw the deputies gathered outside courtroom 1C in the Fulton County Courthouse. The bailiff had already told me there would be an increased presence when a verdict was reached. We got back into the courtroom and waited while the defendants, and their attorneys, prosecutors, members of the media, and the public gathered.

As Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter came into the courtroom, I activated a remote camera that he had allowed me to mount just over the witness stand.

It took Judge Baxter a total of 5 1/2 minutes to read the verdicts that would change lives.

Defense attorney Angela Johnson braces her client, former Dunbar Elementary School teacher Pamela Cleveland, as she makes a statement in court before her sentencing on April 14 in Atlanta. Cleveland was sentenced to 5 years probation, with 1 year of home confinement and curfew.
Former Dunbar Elementary School teacher Pamela Cleveland listens to her mother, Rochelle Perrin, testify on her behalf as a character witness during sentencing hearings for the convicted school employees. Cleveland was one of 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta school district test-cheating trial in Fulton County Superior Court.

As the verdicts rolled out, I was struck by the lack of emotion on most of the defendants’ faces, though I believe they were stunned by the outcome.

I was originally assigned to the Atlanta case in May 2013, for the first court hearings for the 35 educators and administrators originally indicted earlier that spring. We’d established early on that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was going to provide the pool still photography for the coverage. I took on the primary role in the court coverage, and was the lone photojournalist to cover most of the trial from start to finish.

Former Dobbs Elementary School teacher Dessa Curb listens during sentencing of 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta school test-cheating trial. Ms. Curb was acquitted of all charges by the jury.
Fulton County Senior Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker talks with another member of the prosecution team during witness statements for the defendants during sentencing proceedings for defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta test-cheating trial.
Fulton County Senior Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker, right, hugs Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard after a jury read guilty verdicts for 11 defendants in the test-cheating trial.

During the course of the trial, I decided that I’d shoot as many of the personalities daily so we could have a historical record. One of the defendants, Shani Robinson, was pregnant, and we could tell her progress over the months from August to April (she delivered a son on April 11).

I attended about 70 of the 83 or 84 days of trial, including testimony, jury deliberations, the verdicts and two days of sentencing. In all, I shot nearly 23,500 photos.

A Fulton County Sheriff’s Deputy handcuffs former Atlanta’s Public Schools school research team director Sharon Davis Williams, center, after a jury found her guilty in the school district’s test-cheating trial.
Former Atlanta Public Schools school research team co-director Tamara Cotman, center, is led to a holding cell after a jury found her guilty in the test-cheating trial.
Former Deerwood Academy assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan is led to a holding cell after a jury found her guilty in the test-cheating trial.

I found myself conflicted over how educators entrusted to teach kids, not just their school lessons but also to be role models of behavior, could do what they were accused of. My mother was a career educator, teaching middle school for 40 years. Several other family members and friends are educators as well.

I don’t think anyone wanted career educators jailed. The district attorney said as much in the beginning and at the conclusion of the trial. As a parent, however, I found myself wondering about the kids who didn’t get the help they needed to succeed. Early on, some folks tried to characterize this as a racial prosecution, saying that they didn’t believe poor black kids could learn at the rates depicted in the test scores. I don’t buy that argument.

I think the most troubling thing for me was that the educational system was being treated more like a factory. Get ‘em in, push ‘em out.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff photographer Kent D. Johnson, in courtroom 1C in the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta.

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A version of this article first appeared in the Full Frame blog.

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