Jenny Jarvie, Los Angeles Times, September 6, 2014
Amid a wave of school cheating scandals across the country, a landmark trial here is set to begin with school teachers facing up to 35 years in prison in one of the biggest academic misconduct cases in American history.
Opening statements are expected to start this month in the trial of 12 former Atlanta Public Schools employees accused of boosting students’ scores by altering and falsely certifying students’ answers in standardized tests.
The state’s investigation implicated more than 180 teachers and administrators in 44 schools.
The trial also has opened wounds among some residents who say that teachers and administrators on trial–all African Americans who worked in low-income neighborhoods–are being unfairly prosecuted under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations statute.
“This is a witch hunt against black teachers,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald III, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church in southeast Atlanta.
Like many African American leaders here, he said the state’s investigation is a politically motivated attempt to discredit Atlanta’s public schools.
“Yes, there should be some punishment–suspensions, fines, even loss of jobs–but 35 years in jail?” McDonald said. “The community did not ask for this kind of prosecution.”
Atlanta Public Schools was once hailed as one of the highest-performing urban districts in the nation.
Test scores climbed so rapidly that its chief, Beverly Hall, was named National Superintendent of the Year in 2009 by the American Assn. of School Administrators.
Just a few months later, however, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution published a series of reports on suspicious jumps in that year’s state-mandated test results.
Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue launched an inquiry, sending more than 50 investigators to elementary and middle schools to interview more than 2,100 teachers, administrators and students.
Investigators found “organized and systemic misconduct” in 44 of 56 schools and said administrators created a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.” The administrators used data as an “abusive and cruel weapon” to coax employees into crossing ethical lines, investigators said.
More than 80 educators confessed to test tampering. In some schools, they huddled together in offices to correct multiple-choice papers. In one case, a principal was reported to have held “erasure parties” at her pool.
In March 2013, a Fulton County grand jury returned a 65-count indictment charging 35 teachers and administrators with taking part in a racketeering enterprise and other charges, such as making false statements and influencing witnesses.
Hall, who is charged with racketeering, making false statements, theft and influencing witnesses, has denied any knowledge of cheating. Her trial has been postponed as she receives treatment for breast cancer. Another defendant has passed away, and 21 others have agreed to assist prosecutors in exchange for probation.
The trial for the remaining 12 teachers and administrators is almost certain to be one of the most scrutinized in Georgia history.
The Atlanta educators are not the first to face criminal prosecution for cheating. Last year, the former schools chief in El Paso became the nation’s first superintendent to be convicted of manipulating test scores for financial gain.
Last year, a report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office said that officials in 40 states detected potential cheating in K-12 tests given to public school students between 2010 and 2012. In California, the state Department of Education stripped 27 schools of their academic ratings last year because of testing irregularities.