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Atlanta School Cheating Scandal: Is Prison Too Harsh a Punishment?

After a judge threw the book at some educators convicted in a massive cheating ring, Atlanta begins a search for lessons.
/ Source: NBC News

Like so many others around the country, Georgia Federation of Teachers President Verdaillia Turner watched what happened in an Atlanta courtroom Tuesday and came away shaking her head.

A day earlier, Fulton Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter told 10 people convicted of a massive test-cheating scandal that he'd go easy on them if they admitted their guilt, apologized and waived their right to appeal the sentence he imposed.

Only two accepted. The rest he sentenced to prison on Tuesday, some for as long as seven years.

"They should have taken the deal," Turner said. "I have no idea why these folks were so hardheaded."

Turner, who also runs the Atlanta Federation of Teachers, knows the value of taking a deal. She helped dozens of members arrange for lenient punishment in return for admitting their roles early on in the investigation, which found educators had fed answers to students or erased and changed answers on standardized tests, making it look like the troubled 50,000-student city school system had engineered a remarkable turnaround.

Evidence pointed to cheating in 44 schools with nearly 180 educators, involving teachers, principals and administrators. Teachers who tried to report it were threatened with retaliation.

Turner said 48 of her members were "disposed of" before the trial, and most have "landed on their feet," some in education jobs, others out of the industry.

Eventually, 12 defendants went to trial. Eleven were convicted of racketeering. Ten appeared appeared before Baxter on Monday and were given an opportunity for leniency. The two who did, Donald Bullock and Pam Cleveland, avoided jail.

The others got the book thrown at them: seven years in prison for Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis Williams and Michael Pitts; two years for Tabeeka Jordan; one year for Angela Williamson, Dana Evans, Diane Buckner-Webb and Theresia Copeland. Many plan to appeal.

"All I want for many of these people is to just take some responsibility," Baxter said. "But they refuse."

Even after Baxter's warning, the stiffness of his sentences surprised many in the education industry.

"We thought they were fairly harsh, the sentences," said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators, which also represents teachers. "But certainly a wrong had been done, and needed to be exposed, and people needed to pay the price."

James Wolfinger, an associate professor of history and education at DePaul University, said it was remarkable to him that cheating had led to racketeering charges, a device typically used against gangsters and drug dealers. The sentences "feel excessive," he said.

But Wolfinger also noted that the case reflects the increased politicization of public school curricula, and state-mandated reforms that punish systems that perform poorly.

The judge, and the justice system, needed to make an example of people, he said.

"I do think it has to do with a move to more of a testing regime in schools — that if we’re going to use high-stakes testing, then the stakes should be high for educators as well."


— with The Associated Press