By Eric Stirgus
After more than eight days of deliberation in a case that rattled the region and garnered unwanted national attention, a jury found 11 of 12 former Atlanta Public Schools teachers, principals and administrators guilty of conspiring to change student answers on standardized tests.
A racketeering indictment could mean a 20-year prison sentence. The other felonies carry prison sentences of as much as five and 10 years each. The trial stretched five months with 162 witnesses who took the stand. Thousands of pages of testimony were introduced. Closing arguments lasted three days.
The former educators are accused of conspiring to change answers on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests to artificially inflate scores to satisfy federal benchmarks. The prosecution said bonuses and raises were awarded based on test scores.
The alleged cheating was discovered when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported inexplicable spikes in test scores. Eventually, a criminal investigation was opened that led to a 29-count indictment two years ago. Two of those counts have been dropped, leaving 27 for the jury to consider.
Before the cheating was exposed, the narrative of the Atlanta school system was it was a vastly improving district that took a no-nonsense approach to teachers and administrators who did not meet its high academic standards. Its superintendent, Beverly Hall, won national awards. City leaders used the rising test scores to make the case to businesses that Atlanta was the place to be.
The narrative rapidly changed. Hall resigned amid the investigation. Abhorrent tales of cheating parties emerged. Dismayed parents wondered what their children really learned.
Hall was the ringleader of the cheating, prosecutors said. She was not tried because she was being treated for breast cancer when jury selection began. Hall died earlier this month after testimony ended. One other former educator named in the March 2013 indictment also died. Twenty-one others pleaded guilty to lesser charges and were sentenced to probation.
Some community leaders, activists and civil rights icons like Ambassador Andrew Young argued criminal investigations and trials were an unnecessary approach to holding those accountable for their actions.
A state-commissioned report found organized, widespread cheating. Investigators found cheating in Dougherty County, but prosecutors did not indict any teachers because they said the cheating was not organized.
(c)2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)