The Atlanta Public School Cheating Scandal

by Just Juan
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“The lives that have been affected by their deplorable acts cannot be accounted for” – Tasha Beene

Earlier this month, after an 8-month trial on racketeering charges stemming from their role in a wide-ranging cheating scandal, 11 teachers and administrators from the Atlanta Public Schools system were found guilty of said charges. 1 teacher was found not guilty and the former superintendent of the school system escaped prosecution by dying of breast cancer. This past Monday, Judge Jerry Baxter of the Fulton County Superior Court issued out punishment for those convicted. Those sentences were as follows:

  • Donald Bullock, testing coordinator: 6-month weekend jail sentence, 5 years’ probation, 1500 hours of community service, $5000 fine
  • Sharon Davis-Williams, school reform team executive director: 20-year prison sentence (with a requirement to serve 7 years), 2000 hours of community service, $25000 fine
  • Tamara Cotman, school reform team executive director: 20-year prison sentence (with a requirement to serve 7 years), 2000 hours of community service, $25000 fine
  • Michael Pitts, school reform team executive director: 20-year prison sentence (with a requirement to serve 7 years), 2000 hours of community service, $25000 fine
  • Dana Evans, school principal: 5-year prison sentence (with a requirement to serve 1 year), 1000 hours of community service
  • Angela Williamson, teacher: 5-year prison sentence (with a requirement to serve 2 years), 1500 hours of community service, $5000 fine
  • Tabeeka Jordan, school assistant principal: 5-year prison sentence (with a requirement to serve 2 years), 1500 hours of community service, $5000 fine
  • Theresia Copeland, testing coordinator: 5-year prison sentence (with a requirement to serve 1 year), 1000 hours of community service, $1000 fine
  • Diane Buckner-Webb, teacher: 5-year prison sentence (with a requirement to serve 1 year), 1000 hours of community service, $1000 fine
  • Pamela Cleveland, teacher: 7pm-7am home confinement for 1 year, 5 years’ probation, 1000 hours of community service, $1000 fine
  • Shani Robinson, teacher: to be sentenced later due to recent childbirth
  • Deesa Curb was the teacher who was acquitted and Beverly Hall is the late superintendent who escaped prosecution. It should also be noted that Buckner-Webb and Copeland were granted first offender status, which basically removes and seals the conviction at the completion of their sentences.

In the lead-up to sentencing, Judge Baxter had consistently noted that he would send the educators to prison for 20 years if the jury found them guilty. In fact, of the 11 convicted 2 weeks ago, 10 were taken into immediate custody with Robinson only spared because of her pregnancy status. The sentences meted out on Monday were actually considerably less and Baxter also allowed others to take deals. There is a lot of mixed reaction about the sentences handed down to these educators. Some of my friends and acquaintances who are educators feel as if the sentences were too harsh…one of them would have preferred to see restorative justice over prison time. Others outside of the education realm felt the sentences were appropriate with some even thinking the sentences were softer than they should have been. There were a few who thought the sentences were another example of racial inequality in sentencing within the justice system…a point no doubt brought up because all of the accused were Black and because it was a non-violent crime.

I think what’s lost in translation is the magnitude of this scandal. Many believe that the cheating started in 2001, when the Atlanta Public Schools system started to see a dramatic turnaround on skills tests administered by the State of Georgia. According to the Fulton County District Attorney, more than a quarter-million incorrect answers were changed. Originally 35 people were indicted 2 years ago but 21 of them took plea deals to avoid prosecution, leaving the 13 abovementioned educators and 1 other educator who died before trial.

WHAT DO I THINK OF THE PUNISHMENTS?  I don’t think the punishments were too harsh. Those teachers cheated their students…Black students considering Atlanta Public Schools is mostly Black. They stole from their communities…Black communities as an overwhelming majority of the district lines include the Black population of Atlanta. They reaped financial rewards and national praise behind this while thousands of students didn’t get a fair shake in terms of education, something that could have long-term effects on lives. Honest teachers and staff in opposition to this were fired and their careers were tarnished because of it. These cheating teachers embezzled money, violated the public trust, and affected a lot of people in doing so. I don’t think a “get out of jail free” option is warranted here because their only job was to stand up for the kids and if they did just that by putting in the effort to effectively teach and/or tutor them, none of them would be in this position.

What really troubles me about this is the reaction of the Black community. I get it…we should defend our people and all but I don’t think this is one of those instances where it’s appropriate. I think a lot of people see a bunch of Black teachers getting the book thrown at them—an example of what I call a fixed mindset or tunnel vision—while ignoring the thousands of students, the scores of teachers, and the millions of Georgia taxpayers affected by this—an example of what I call a broader perspective. I don’t think anybody should feel sorry for the sentences those educators got. I realize that may seem harsh but considering how valuable and important I think education is, nobody should expect me to feel differently. Those teachers got off easy as far as I’m concerned. For the penalty the kids affected will suffer by not being accurately measured, those educators should be serving 20-year sentences. But at the end of the day, they got light sentences…and most of them still dared to appeal after a jury convicted them in the longest trial in the state’s history. Maybe life will punish them more. I’m sure their careers in education are done and some will probably suffer financial strain stemming from this trial.

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