Judge Reduces Sentences for 3 Educators in Atlanta Cheating Scandal

by | May 1, 2015 AT 10:50 AM

By Rhonda Cook and Ty Tagami

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter called on the three supervising educators that he resentenced Thursday to start giving back to the community while they wait for their appeals to be heard.

He said he hoped Tamara Cotman, Michael Pitts and Sharon Davis-Williams will give some of their mandated 2,000 hours of community service to the Atlanta Redemption Academy, a program that Fulton District Attorney Paul Howard created to work with children harmed by the cheating scandal.

"We're not going to turn down any help," Howard said. "There's a lot to be done. They could be of some benefit."

Cotman, Pitts and Davis-Williams were noncommittal.

The three got the toughest sentences on April 14 when Atlanta's longest trial in history ended: seven years in prison, 13 years on probation, $25,000 in fines and 2,000 hours of community service. At the time, an emotional Baxter railed at those who had the most responsibility for what happened -- the three administrators who oversaw principals and schools where teachers were changing wrong answers to right on standardized tests.

But on Thursday, a more reflective Baxter changed those stiff seven-year sentences to ones more in line with what Howard had recommended: three years in prison and seven on probation. Baxter also reduced the fines to $10,000. But the community service requirements remain the same.

Attorney George Lawson told the judge that Pitts, his client, had been ready to work with the proposed Atlanta Redemption Academy, but after the resentencing he was less certain. "Maybe we will. Maybe we won't," Lawson said as he scrambled from the courtroom.

Cotman and Davis-Williams said they didn't know if they would give time to the Redemption Academy, which will find students hurt by the cheating and work with them to provide the learning they lost. But both said they plan to do something to give back to the community.

Baxter had already told the student newspaper at Grady High School, his alma mater, of his plan to reduce three of the sentences by the time Cotman, Pitts and Davis-Williams arrived in court Thursday afternoon.

"Just peace of mind for me. ... I just wanna give what I think is an appropriate sentence and not have it done when emotions were running high," Baxter told the Grady newspaper, the Southerner online.

The sentences for seven other convicted former educators remain the same. Only former Dunbar Elementary School teacher Shani Robinson has not yet learned her fate. She gave birth to a son at the time of sentencing, so she will face the judge in August.

It was not Baxter's first change of mind. Over the course of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial -- which began in August 2014 with a jury selection process that lasted six weeks -- the sometimes volatile judge often rethought his decisions, sometimes within minutes of making an initial call.

He became enraged at the end of the trial after most of the former educators turned down plea deals that were unusual because they came after convictions and minutes before Baxter was scheduled to sentence them.

The deals called for the convicted educators to admit to responsibility for the cheating and sign away their rights to appeal. In return, prosecutors said they would recommend to Baxter that the convicted spend only a year of weekends in the Fulton County Jail instead of years in the state prison system.

Two took the deal:

Former Usher-Collier Heights Elementary School testing coordinator Donald Bullock was ordered to spend six months of weekends in the Fulton County Jail as part of his five years of probation. Former Dunbar Elementary School teacher Pamela Cleveland also was sentenced to five years probation, with the first year under a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew.

"I just wanted people to accept responsibility," Baxter said at the time.

Those who spurned the deal have maintained they are innocent. The convicted educators, excluding the three regional administrators, received sentences ranging from one to two years in prison with $1,000 fines and community service.

Baxter said Thursday that the seven-year prison terms he initially gave Cotman, Pitts and Davis-Williams were "in line" with the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. The jury found that 11 of the dozen defendants violated the RICO law by using the Atlanta school system as a criminal enterprise to cheat and cover up the cheating. "But I want (the sentences) to be something I consider fair and I can deal with," the judge said.

He explained: "When a judge goes home and he keeps thinking over and over that something's wrong, something is usually wrong. I want to modify the sentence so I can live with it. I'm going to put myself out to pasture in the not too distant future, and I want to be out in the pasture without regrets."

Howard, whose office had recommended the three-year prison sentences, said he was happy with the revised punishment.

But Ben Davis, who represented Cotman, said after the hearing, "Right now, what Judge Baxter says doesn't have any credibility."

"Judge Baxter says certain things and then does something different," he said.

Davis observed that Baxter said two weeks ago that a 20-year sentence that required seven of those years to be in prison was "appropriate." Then Baxter said the same thing on Thursday about the revised punishment.

"If someone changes their mind in a short time, it makes you wonder about his state of mind," Davis said. "I don't know what is going on. I have never seen a judge conduct himself that way."

A member of the judge's staff said Baxter had nothing to say in response to Davis' comment.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began reporting systematic cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests in 2008 after reviewing impossible test score gains.The newspaper's work eventually resulted in an investigation ordered by the governor, and more than 100 educators were implicated.

Answers on tests were changed to help the district -- especially struggling schools in low-income neighborhoods -- meet federal benchmarks and even tougher requirements set by former Superintendent Beverly Hall.

Two years ago, a Fulton County grand jury indicted 35 of those educators, including Hall. Twenty-one pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges and were sentenced to probation before jury selection began last August. Two others, including Hall, died of cancer before trial.

In testimony that began in September, students, parents and teachers recounted how children were promoted even though they could not read or do basic math.

Those children remained on Baxter's mind Thursday.

"There is a lot more to this tragedy than the cheating: the poverty and utter hopelessness" in the neighborhoods where the cheating occurred, he said. "Hopefully, after going through this our community will put a microscope on it and hopefully do something."

(c)2015 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (Atlanta, Ga.)