A local judge sentenced several Atlanta public school educators to 20 years in prison Tuesday for changing scores on students' exams, after a jury found them guilty of racketeering following a six-month trial. Judge Jerry W. Baxter of Fulton County Superior Court handed down the sentences after witnesses implored him to show mercy during court proceedings Monday.
Former Atlanta schools administrators Sharon Davis Williams and Tamara Cotman were sentenced to 20 years in the testing scandal. They will likely serve seven years each, media reports said. "This is not a victimless crime that occurred in this city," Baxter said after handing down the sentences.
Before the sentencing, one defendant, Dr. Dana Evans, a principal, defended her long career in education, noting she was no longer able to work because of the cheating scandal. “You Google my name, there’s at least 50 pictures,” she said. “I’ve been arrested, shackled, spent the last two weeks in jail. I have been punished. So today I’m just asking you to let us go.”
More than two-dozen protesters stood outside the Fulton County Courthouse on Monday, singing gospel hymns, the New York Times reported. Michael Langford, 56, president of the United Youth Adult Conference, was among those supporting the Atlanta teachers. “They’ve lost their teacher certification,” he told the Times. “They’ve lost their professional reputation. Many of them have lost their life savings.”
Some supporters said the charges were unfair because the teachers and administrators -- all African-Americans who worked in impoverished neighborhoods -- were reprimanded with a racketeering statute generally associated with mobsters and gangsters.
“Our teachers were crucified the other day,” the Rev. Anthony Motley, pastor of Lindsay Street Baptist Church, told his congregation during a recent service, the Los Angeles Times reported. “One of these days, one of these days, one of these days our teachers are going to rise up from this unjust grave.”
The Rev. Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., also defended the educators. “It would not lift humanity to have 11 educators subjected to an ‘eye-for-an-eye’ sentence,” she said in a statement. The teachers were themselves “victims of a corrupt education system,” she argued.
The scandal became public after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution began publishing articles that questioned the dramatic improvements in scores some schools reported on Georgia's standardized test. A state investigation later determined in 2011 that nearly 180 school system employees were complicit, with some meeting up at cheating parties to erase and fix incorrect test answers. In all, 35 educators were indicted in 2013 on charges ranging from racketeering to theft. Many pleaded guilty, USA Today reported.
"Something awful was going on here," Baxter said during the lengthy proceedings Monday. "They are the most vulnerable children in our city and they were short-changed."