Stiff Sentences for Convicted Atlanta Educators Shock Many

By Corey Mitchell — April 17, 2015 5 min read
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter describes how three former school officials "were at the top of the chain" during sentencing in Atlanta last week. Most of the former Atlanta educators convicted in a widespread conspiracy to inflate student scores on state tests were sentenced to prison. Judge Baxter called the cheating scandal "the sickest thing that's ever happened in this town."
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The stiff sentences handed down to most of the former Atlanta educators convicted for their roles in cheating on state tests has sparked emotional responses well beyond the Georgia courtroom where one of K-12’s most egregious cases of academic misconduct has been playing out for months.

Last week, a Fulton County, Ga., judge sentenced eight of the 11 former Atlanta school employees convicted in a test-cheating scandal to prison, reserving the harshest penalties for those who refused to reach sentencing agreements with the district attorney.

Almost all the former educators were sentenced to spend time behind bars, a reality that hit hard for some. Crying and sobbing could be heard in the courtroom as Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter handed down the first of the sentences.

The high-profile case has raised larger questions about the role of high-stakes testing in K-12 education and why prosecutors sought to convict the former teachers, principals, and administrators under state racketeering laws.

Former testing coordinator Donald Bullock holds his head as his defense attorney, Hurl Taylor, accepts a sentencing deal last week. Bullock avoided prison time but was sentenced to five years probation, six months of weekends in jail, a $5000 fine, and 1,500 hours of community service.

Though investigators have documented test-cheating incidents in several other large urban districts since the Atlanta scandal broke in 2009, Pedro Noguera, a New York University education professor, argues that federal and state lawmakers have not adequately reexamined the role of testing in the years since.

“We treated it as though it was an isolated incident. It’s just an anomaly, it’s just Atlanta,” Mr. Noguera said.

“But it’s much bigger than that,” he said. "[Cheating on tests] will continue to occur.”

Appeals to Come

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 stand trial faced up to 20 years in prison because the jury convicted them of violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, a statute typically reserved for those involved in organized crime.

Judge Baxter sentenced three top administrators to seven years in prison, with 13 years’ probation. Five lower-ranking educators received one- to two-year prison terms, and two educators gave up their rights to appeal and agreed to lighter sentences to avoid prison time.

All of the sentences also included hefty monetary fines and hundreds of community-service hours to be spent educating inmates and students.

One defendant, who was pregnant when she was convicted, will be sentenced in August. One of the 12 defendants was acquitted of all charges.

The former educators, whom Mr. Baxter ordered jailed after their convictions, will remain free on bond during the appeals process.

Atlanta Educators Sentenced

Former educators in the Atlanta Public Schools were sentenced for their roles in a test-cheating conspiracy. Eight received prison terms ranging from one to seven years. Two others received lighter sentences after striking agreements with prosecutors.

Tamara Cotman
Former administrator
Sentenced: 20 years in prison; seven behind bars, 13 on probation.

Sharon Davis-Williams
Former administrator
Sentenced: 20 years in prison; seven behind bars, 13 on probation.

Michael Pitts
Former administrator sentenced: 20 years in prison; seven behind bars, 13 on probation.

Angela Williamson
Former teacher
Sentenced: Five years in prison; two behind bars, three on probation.

Tabeeka Jordan
Former assistant principal
Sentenced: Five years in prison; two behind bars, three on probation.

Dana Evans
Former principal
Sentenced: Five years in prison; one behind bars, four on probation.

Diane Buckner-Webb
Former teacher
Sentenced: Five years in prison; one behind bars, four on probation.

Theresia Copeland
Former testing coordinator
Sentenced: Five years in prison; one behind bars, four on probation.

Donald Bullock
Former testing coordinator
Sentenced: Five years probation; six months of weekend jail time.

Pamela Cleveland
Former teacher
Sentenced: Five years probation; one year of home confinement between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m.

Shani Robinson
Former teacher
Sentencing: Robinson, who recently gave birth, will be sentenced in August.

*All of the former educators also were sentenced to pay fines and provide community service hours educating inmates and students.

Source: Education Week

That process could take years, prolonging a case that has already hung over the district of 50,000 students for more than six years.

The transcript from the trial, believed to be the most complex academic-misconduct case in U.S. history, could be tens of thousands of pages long, prosecutors estimated.

Meanwhile, current Atlanta district leaders are looking to move beyond the scandal.

“This has been a very painful episode for everyone involved. But we are focused on the future,” school board Chairman Courtney English said in a statement.

The penalties meted out in the cheating case divided observers: Those who wanted the proverbial book thrown at the educators, and others who questioned what they saw as unduly harsh sentences.

‘Not a Crime to Cheat’

Former teacher Angela Williamson’s defense attorney Gerald Griggs said the cheating was a civil, not criminal, matter and that his client and the other former educators should have simply had their licenses revoked.

“They don’t deserve prison,” Mr. Griggs said at a National Association of Black Journalists event in Charlotte, N.C., two days after the sentencing. “In Georgia, it’s not a crime to cheat.”

Judge Baxter sentenced Ms. Williams to two years in prison and three years probation.

“I was surprised by the severity of the punishment,” said Daniel A. Domenech, the executive director of AASA, the School Superintendents Association.

“But the judicial system wanted to send a message that ‘this is criminal, this is a felony.’ This will be a deterrent,” he said.

Expressing little pity for the convicted educators, Judge Baxter told one defense attorney that some of the real victims of the Atlanta scandal were children who were passed through the school system because of falsified test scores and ended up in trouble with law enforcement, and even landing behind bars, in part because of educators the public had placed its trust in.

“I think there were hundreds and thousands of kids who were lost in the schools,” Judge Baxter said. “That’s what gets lost. Everyone’s crying, but this is not a victimless crime that occurred in this city.”

Most of the defense lawyers said their clients turned down the sentencing deals offered by prosecutors because they would have been forced to admit guilt and give up their right to appeal.

At sentencing, dozens of character witnesses spoke in behalf of the convicted educators, begging Judge Baxter to show compassion in deciding their punishments.

He granted many of the former educators first-offender status, which will allow them to clear their criminal records after their sentences are served.

Former Superintendent Beverly Hall was charged by prosecutors as the cheating conspiracy’s ringleader, though she vehemently denied that charge. A onetime national superintendent of the year, Ms. Hall was kept by failing health from standing trial. She died of breast cancer last month.

Ms. Hall, who retired after the scandal broke in 2011, offered cash bonuses to educators at schools that met achievement targets on the state tests.

Mr. Noguera, in an opinion piece published April 15 by the Huffington Post, wrote that debate surrounding the Atlanta cheating has overlooked the “unwillingness of policymakers to recognize their own culpability in the scandal” and the “lack of attention to the educational needs of the children in Atlanta.”

But Mr. Domenech of AASA thinks the Atlanta case has seized the attention of members of Congress and federal education officials who may have previously overlooked the role high-stakes testing plays in creating a pressure-cooker environment inside schools.

“It shows the pressure that it places on people. People become absorbed with passing test scores,” Mr. Domenech said.

“It’s a really tragic and unfortunate event,” he said. “It was disastrous for all the people involved.”

A version of this article appeared in the April 22, 2015 edition of Education Week as Stiff Sentences for Convicted Atlanta Educators


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