A Fulton County, Ga., judge sentenced eight of the 11 former Atlanta schools employees convicted in a test-cheating scandal to prison Tuesday, reserving the harshest penalties for those who refused to reach sentencing agreements with the district attorney.
Almost all the defendants will spend time behind bars, a reality that hit home hard for some in the courtroom. Audible crying and sobbing could be heard as Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter handed down the first of the sentences.
But the judge, often visibly irritated during the sentencing, said it all could have been avoided. Before recessing court Monday, Baxter urged the defense attorneys in the case to hammer out deals with the district attorney. That didn’t happen.
“I said to everybody, ‘This is the time to search your soul,’” Baxter said. “Nobody has taken any responsibility that I can see. I was trying to give everybody one more chance. All I want from these people is for somebody to take responsibility.”
The former educators were convicted of falsifying test results to collect bonuses or keep their jobs. In all, 35 educators were indicted in 2013 on charges including racketeering, making false statements and theft. The 12 who chose to take the case to trial faced up to 20 years in prison because they were convicted of violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a statute typically reserved for those involved in organized crime.
One defendant, who was pregnant when she was convicted, will be sentenced in August. One of the 12 defendants was acquitted of all charges.
Baxter often snapped at and cut off the statements of defense lawyers making last-minutes cases for lenient sentencing for their clients.
Expressing little pity for the convicted educators, Baxter told one defense attorney that some of the real victims of the Atlanta cheating scandal were children who were passed through the school system because of falsified test scores and landed behind bars, in part, because of educators the public placed their trust in.
“This is not a victimless crime that occurred,” Baxter said. “These kids were passed on and passed on. The only chance that they had was the school. There are victims in the jail, kids who I have sentenced.”
Most of the attorneys said their clients turned down the sentencing deals because they would have to renounce their right to appeal and admit guilt.
- Former school reform team executive directors Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams, and Michael Pitts to 20 years in prison, serving seven of them behind bars and 13 years on probation. Cotman, Davis-Williams, and Pitts also must pay $25,000 fines and perform 2,000 hours of community service, to be spent tutoring inmates and students.
- Former principal Dana Evans to five years in prison, serving one behind bars and four years on probation plus 1,000 hours of community service, to be spent tutoring inmates and students.
- Former teacher Angela Williamson to five years in prison, serving two behind bars and three years on probation plus a $5,000 fine and 1,500 hours of community service, to be spent tutoring inmates and students.
- Former assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan to five years in prison, to serve two behind bars and three years on probation plus a $5,000 fine and 1,500 hours of community service, to be spent tutoring inmates and students.
- Former teacher Diane Buckner-Webb to five years in prison, to serve one behind bars and four years on probation plus a $1,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service to be spent tutoring inmates and students.
- Former testing coordinator Theresia Copeland to five years in prison, to serve one behind bars and four years on probation plus a $1,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service to be spent tutoring inmates and students.
Two of the convicted educators, former teacher Pamela Cleveland and former testing coordinator Donald Bullock, agreed to sentencing agreements with the district attorney and Baxter showed leniency.
Cleveland will serve five years on probation, with one year of home confinement between the hours of 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., plus a $1,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service to be spent tutoring inmates and students.
Bullock will serve five years on probation, with six months of weekends in jail and 1,500 hours of community service to be spent tutoring inmates and students.
Dozens of character witnesses spoke of behalf of the convicted educators Monday, begging Baxter to show compassion during sentencing. He may have turned a deaf ear to some of those pleas. But he granted many of the former educators first-offender status, which will allow them to clear their criminal records after their sentences are served.
At top: Former testing coordinator Donald Bullock holds his head as his defense attorney Hurl Taylor stand and accepts a sentencing deal on Tuesday in Atlanta. Bullock was sentenced to 5 years probation, 6 months of weekends in jail, $5000 fine and 1500 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. -Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
At bottom: Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter presides over the sentencing of 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial in Fulton County Superior Court, in Atlanta on Monday. -Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.