ATLANTA — There was nothing routine about a sentencing hearing Tuesday in Atlanta that wrote the final legal chapter of one of the most massive school cheating scandals in the country.
Eleven out of the 12 educators were convicted April 1 of racketeering and other lesser crimes related to inflating test scores of children from struggling schools. One teacher was acquitted.
One by one, they stood, alongside their attorneys, before Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter.
In this system, a jury decides guilt or innocence, the judge metes out punishment.
Throughout the five-month trial, Baxter has been pointed. Until Monday, he said he planned to sentence the educators to prison. When verdicts were reached, he ordered them directly to jail.
But on Monday he changed his mind and decided to allow prosecutors to offer them deals that would have allowed them to avoid the possible 20-year sentence that racketeering carries.
And that’s why there were sparks when some of the educators, flanked by their attorneys, did not directly and readily admit their responsibility.
Baxter was not pleased. He raised his voice numerous times and shouted at attorneys. Some attorneys shouted back. At one point, one of the defense lawyers said he might move to recuse the judge and the judge retorted that he could send that attorney to jail.
“Everybody starts crying about these educators. This was not a victimless crime that occurred in this city!” Baxter said.
‘Search your soul’
“Everybody knew cheating was going on and your client promoted it,” Baxter said to an attorney representing Atlanta Public Schools educator Sharon Davis Williams, who Baxter sentenced to seven years in prison.
Davis Williams was ordered to perform 2,000 hour of community service and pay a $25,000 fine.
Repeatedly, Baxter appeared frustrated when more educators did not simply accept the deal and plainly vocalize their guilt.
“These stories are incredible. These kids can’t read,” he said.
“This is the time to search your soul,” Baxter said. “It’s just taking responsibility. … No one has taken responsibility that I can see.”
In 2013, a Fulton County grand jury indicted 35 educators from the Atlanta Public Schools district, and more than 20 took a plea deal. Among them were teachers, principals and testing coordinators.
The cheating is believed to date back to 2001, when scores on statewide aptitude tests improved greatly, according to a 2013 indictment. The indictment also states that for at least four years, between 2005 and 2009, test answers were altered, fabricated or falsely certified.
A review that former Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue ordered, determined that some cheating had occurred in more than half the district’s elementary and middle schools.
Michael Bowers, a former Georgia attorney general who investigated the cheating scandal, said in 2013 that there were “cheating parties,” erasures in and out of classrooms, and teachers were told to make changes to student answers on tests.
“Anything that you can imagine that could involve cheating — it was done,” he said at the time.
During his investigation, he heard that educators cheated out of pride, to earn bonuses, to enhance their careers or to keep their jobs, he said.
The cheating allegedly involved the top educator in the district, ex-Atlanta Public Schools superintendent Beverly Hall.
Hall said she was innocent. Suffering from cancer, she died before she could stand trial.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s investigative journalism is credited with first examining the corruption within the city’s public school system. On Tuesday, the newspaper published photos of each of those who took plea deals and the sentences they received.
- Donald Bullock was first. Witnesses testified that Bullock urged them to change test answers, the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported. The former testing coordinator was ordered to serve five years probation, six months of weekends behind bars, pay a $5,000 fine and perform 1,500 hours of community service. As part of his deal, Bullock agreed to waive his right to appeal.
- Angela Williamson, a former teacher, was ordered to serve two years in prison. She was ordered to pay a $5,000 fine and perform 1,500 hours of community service.
- Pamela Cleveland, a former teacher, was ordered to serve one year home confinement, pay a $1,000 fine and perform 1,000 hours of community service. “I am guilty of the charges against me,” Cleveland said in court.
- Michael Pitts, a former schools executive, was accused of telling teachers to cheat and then telling them not to talk to Georgia Bureau of Investigators who were looking into the scandal. He was ordered to serve seven years in prison, perform 2,000 hours of community service and pay a $25,000 fine.
- Tamara Cotman, a former schools administrator, was ordered to serve seven years in prison, pay a $25,000 fine and perform 2000 hours of community service.
- Dana Evans, a former principal, was ordered to serve one year and perform 1,000 hours of community service.
- Tabeeka Jordan, former assistant principal, was ordered to serve two years in prison, perform 1,500 hours of community service and pay $5,000 fine
- Theresia Copeland, a former test coordinator, was ordered to serve one year in prison, perform 1,000 hours of community service and pay a $1,000 fine.
- Diane Buckner-Webb, a former teacher, was ordered to serve one year in prison, perform 1,000 hours of community service and pay a $1,000 fine.