Atlanta Educators Get Jail Time for Roles in School Cheating Scandal

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Judge Baxter
Judge Baxter

The Atlanta Public Schools finally got a measure of closure to the test cheating scandal that made the system a national embarrassment as a Fulton County judge sentenced nine educators to punishment that ranged from a high of seven years in prison to the lightest sentence of one year home confinement.

There was a final burst of fireworks at the sentencing hearing as Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter expressed frustration that some of the educators refused to admit their responsibility in the scandal.

The sentencing came after a jury convicted the educators—one of them was acquitted—on April 1 of charges related to inflating and changing the test scores of children in schools across the city. It was the largest test cheating scandal in American history, a shocking illustration of how nation’s schools have been abducted by the pressures for students to perform on standardized tests—with incredibly high stakes for the students, teachers and principals if they fail.

As the news of the sentences were made public, many observers went on social media to express outrage that these Black educators would get jail time for a cheating scandal, while a long list of white police officers have walked free after killing unarmed Black men. But many others won’t feel sympathy for educators who could exploit Black students and hijack their educations in order to save face and gain professional advancement.

Baxter allowed prosecutors to offer deals to the educators so they could avoid the possible 20-year sentence that goes with a racketeering conviction.

“Everybody starts crying about these educators. This was not a victimless crime that occurred in this city!” Baxter said, pointing out that he likely has sentenced young people to jail who were passed through the system without being taught to read properly.

“Everybody knew cheating was going on and your client promoted it,” Baxter told the attorney representing educator Sharon Davis-Williams, who Baxter sentenced to seven years in prison, in addition to 2,000 hours of community service and a $25,000 fine. It was one of the heaviest sentences, along with that of Michael Pitts, a former schools executive, and Tamara Cotman, a former schools administrator.

Pitt was accused of telling teachers to cheat and then telling them not to talk to investigators from the Georgia Bureau of Investigators. Pitt got seven years in prison, 2,000 hours of community service and a $25,000 fine.

Cotman received seven years in prison, a $25,000 fine and 2000 hours of community service.

“This is the time to search your soul,” Baxter said. “It’s just taking responsibility…No one has taken responsibility that I can see.”

After a Fulton County grand jury indicted 35 educators in 2013, more than 20 took a plea deal—a group that included teachers, principals and testing coordinators.

Investigators pegged 2001 as the likely beginning of the cheating, when scores started jumping drastically. In 2013, the state issued a shocking report that claimed some educators held “cheating parties” away from the school where they would come together to change answers. The Atlanta cheating scandal involved 178 educators at 44 schools—almost half of the 100 schools in the Atlanta system. According to the state report, teachers and administrators used a variety of methods to conduct the cheating: teachers seated students in a way that allowed lower-performing students to cheat off higher-performing students; teachers in first and second grade—who have to read the test questions to students—used voice inflection to signal the correct answer; teachers sometimes pointed to the correct answer while standing at students’ desks; teachers gave the answers aloud to students and sometimes allowed students to go back and change answers from the previous day.

But it should be pointed out that Atlanta is not alone: the Atlanta Journal Constitution conducted a massive national investigation that revealed evidence of test cheating in about 200 districts across the country. The AJC looked at test results in each of the country’s 69,000 public school districts and found that the suspicious leaps in test results were mainly concentrated in poor schools, in both big city and rural districts, stretching from St. Louis to Gary, Indiana, from Houston to Detroit.

Former superintendent Beverly Hall was also implicated in the scandal, but Hall died of cancer before she could stand trial.

These are the sentences handed down, according to the AJC.

* Donald Bullock, 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.

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