( 4UMF NEWS ) Ten Educators Sentenced To Jail:
In a testy courtroom Tuesday, the judge who sentenced 10 former Atlanta Public Schools educators convicted of conspiring to cheat on state standardized tests told three defendants that they would serve seven years in prison.
Despite the contentions from Sharon Davis-Williams’ and Tamara Cotman’s lawyers that they were innocent and are first offenders, Judge Jerry Baxter of Fulton County Superior Court said that each was being sentenced to 20 years in prison, will be incarcerated for seven years with the balance as probation and also must perform 2,000 hours of community service and pay a $25,000 fine.
“She’s convicted, and she’s at the top of the food chain,” Baxter said of Davis-Williams, who along with Cotman and Michael Pitts were regional directors in the city’s school system during one of the country’s largest cheating scandals. “Your client ran numerous fine educators out. She non-renewed them.”
Pitts received the same sentence and also was sentenced to five years, to run concurrently, on a charge of influencing a witness. The sentences were higher than prosecutors’ recommendations.
Although Baxter initially did not want to consider the top administrators as first offenders, he decided to allow that status for all 10. That will allow each to have their convictions erased upon completion of their sentences.
Two of those convicted, former testing coordinator Donald Bullock and former teacher Pamela Cleveland, decided to take a plea deal that prosecutors had offered. Cleveland became the only one of the former educators to elude jail time.
Any deals required an acceptance of responsibility from the former educators, District Attorney Paul Howard said.
Bullock, who took the deal before Tuesday’s hearing, was sentenced to five years probation, will serve six months in jail on weekends, give 1,500 hours of community service and pay a $5,000 fine.
Cleveland, who apologized in court, was sentenced to five years probation including a one-year 7 p.m.-to-7-a.m. home confinement, 1,000 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine. Prosecutors took into consideration her elderly parents, so she will be able to serve her home confinement at their house or any hospital where either might be a patient.
Bullock also will apologize and both waived their right to appeal. All were sentenced Tuesday after the judge gave them extra time to negotiate deals with prosecutors.
The former educators’ community service will be served at Atlanta’s jail teaching inmates, some of whom are the victims of the problems in Atlanta’s school system, Baxter said.
“I think there were hundreds, thousands of children who were harmed,” the judge said. “That’s what gets lost in all of this.”
Some of the defendants’ lawyers pushed back at the expectation of a deal being reached, causing Baxter to cut them off and say he was ready to deliver his sentences immediately. He had delayed sentencing after learning that Howard had been talking to defense attorneys and thought the case could be resolved with sentencing deals.
“I just wanted them to get a taste of it,” Baxter said of the sentences he had in mind after he quickly delivered Davis-Williams’ and Cotman’s punishment. “Apparently, that didn’t quite move them.”
In an exchange with Pitts’ lawyer, Baxter said he was worried that some of those convicted were more remorseful that they were caught than they were about cheating young students out of an education.
“They should have rose up and said no,” the judge said of pressure to alter standardized test scores. “They didn’t, and here we are.”
The former educators were convicted April 1 on a racketeering charge. Some faced additional charges.
“This was very, very remarkable, to have the judge sort of give the defendants a second chance,” said Ron Carlson, University of Georgia law professor emeritus. “The thing that maybe was a little surprising was the reticence of the defendants to step forward and do that.”
The defendants had been accused of falsifying test results to collect bonuses or keep their jobs in Atlanta Public Schools. In all, 35 educators were indicted in 2013 on charges including racketeering, making false statements and theft. Many pleaded guilty and some testified at the trial.
A state investigation found that as far back as 2005, educators fed answers to students or erased and changed answers on tests after they were turned in. Evidence of cheating was found in 44 schools with nearly 180 educators involved, and teachers who tried to report it were threatened with retaliation.
Five school-level educators — including principals, assistant principals and teachers — were sentenced to five years in prison. Each will be incarcerated for one to two years and serve the remainder on probation. They also will perform 1,000 to 1,500 hours of community service and all but one face fines of $1,000 to $5,000.
The eight who did not accept a plea deal have a right to appeal within 30 days. They have been in jail since they were convicted earlier this month but left jail later Tuesday on bond pending their appeals.
Former Superintendent Beverly Hall was among those charged but never went to trial, saying she was too sick. She died a month ago of breast cancer.
Hall insisted she was innocent. But educators said she was among higher-ups pressuring them to inflate test scores to show gains in achievement and meet federal benchmarks that would mean extra funding.
An 11th convicted former teacher had a baby over the weekend and will be sentenced at a to-be-determined date in August.
Educators’ misconduct rarely ends up in criminal court, and the fact that so many of them received jail time sends a strong message, said Carlson, the law professor.
“These sentences will send shockwaves through the world of education,” he said, adding that he believes it will be nearly impossible going.
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