Atlanta judge reduces sentences for three educators in cheating case

1 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

3 in Atlanta cheating scandal have sentences reduced.

That was the final word a few minutes ago from Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter after reducing the prison sentences of three APS defendants from seven years to serve to three. Three former administrators given hefty sentences in the landmark Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating were summoned back to the courtroom today for new, lighter punishments.

A state investigation found that as far back as 2005, educators from the 50,000-student Atlanta school system fed answers to students or erased and changed answers on tests after they were turned in. Photo: Reuters ATLANTA—A judge sharply reduced the sentences Thursday for three former Atlanta public-school educators who received the harshest prison terms in the city’s standardized test-cheating trial. Gasps could be heard in the courtroom April 14 when Baxter hit former Atlanta school administrators Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts with 20-year sentences — seven to serve in prison and 13 on probation, and $25,000 fines. Baxter cut the seven-year jail terms for three senior administrators down to three years, in line with what prosecutors had recommended. “When a judge goes home and keeps thinking over and over that something’s wrong, something is usually wrong,” Baxter said. “I want to modify the sentence, so I can live with it.” The Atlanta community has been sharply divided over the punishment of the educators, all African Americans who worked at schools in struggling, low-income neighborhoods.

Before the original sentencing, many — including Andrew Young, the civil rights leader and a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and Atlanta mayor — pleaded for leniency and questioned the wisdom of jail time, arguing the educators had no prior criminal records and posed little threat to society. When Baxter doled out heavy penalties two weeks ago, he argued that lengthy prison sentences for the administrators were fitting because the officials had led a system of widespread corruption that harmed thousands of children. The original prison term — far longer than prosecutors had sought and longer than many violent criminals serve — triggered public debate and a flood of criticism.

The sentences for one of the country’s largest cheating scandals still were higher than prosecutors’ recommendations, but the prison time equals those recommendations. Johnson, Pool) Cotman, after her first sentencing, as to why she did not take a plea deal: “I would not be able to take a deal that would have perjured myself. The convicted teachers, he emphasized, had consistently refused to accept responsibility for their role in the scandal, which he called “the sickest thing that’s ever happened in this town.” While many criticized the jail sentences — which were longer than some violent criminals face — others insisted that jail time would send a stern warning to educators across the city and the nation.

Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed voiced firm support for the judge’s initial punishment, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution last week that “severe” penalties were appropriate because “children were involved.” The Atlanta trial stemmed from the largest known case of academic misconduct in U.S. history and was the first in the nation in which educators were accused of racketeering. Cotman’s lawyer tried to use the opportunity of being back in court to indirectly ask Baxter to throw out his client’s conviction, but Baxter made it clear that was not his intention. The three administrators were among 10 educators convicted April 1 of conspiring to cheat on state standardized tests who had been sentenced 2½ weeks ago. Acknowledging the “fine” teachers in many APS schools serving the poorest of children, Baxter said, “But that alone is not going to solve the problem.

If I would have known, I would have turned it in.” Judge Jerry Baxter’s comment during the resentencing Thursday, “I’ve reduced your clients’ sentence from seven to three [years], that’s as much as I am willing to do.” Hopefully, after going through this, our community will put a microscope on it and hopefully make things better for these children who didn’t ask to be born in these conditions, but they are born in these conditions and need to get all the help they can to get out of there.” To be clear, the altering of student exams to make schools appear more successful was inexcusable, and the educators deserve to be punished.

Evidence of cheating was found in 44 schools with nearly 180 educators involved, and teachers who tried to report it were threatened with retaliation. Baxter suggested the educators volunteer to serve the very students they cheated at a newly formed “redemption academy” designed to help students affected by cheating. “It is my humble belief that this case is going to be affirmed,” Baxter said. “My suggestion to y’all, rather than wasting time … I think you would be way ahead of game if you joined the academy.” Two defendants chose to negotiate lighter sentences in exchange for admitting their guilt, apologizing for their actions and waiving their rights to appeal.

I worry that attributing poor student performance to test tampering promotes a simplistic remedy: Make it harder for educators to cheat and punish them severely when they do. One must serve six months of weekends in the county jail; the other has been sentenced to a year of home confinement, meaning she must stay home from dusk until dawn but is otherwise free. It does not address the core issue of how to advance children who arrive at school far behind advantaged peers whose parents have already invested immense resources into developing their 5-year-old’s critical thinking and problem-solving abilities. The original penalties were handed down after Judge Baxter delayed sentencing for a day to give the convicted former educators a chance to try to negotiate deals with prosecutors.

The venture is supposed to identify current and former Atlanta students whose education was shortchanged because false test scores meant they didn’t get the extra academic help they needed. On last year’s state report card, which grades Georgia schools on a 100-point scale, Sylvan Middle scored 52.7 — below the average APS middle school grade of 65.8 and the average state grade of 73.8. In the five years after the state’s audit confirmed the AJC findings of cheating, testing protocols have tightened in Atlanta, and dozens of educators who confessed to cheating have been ousted from the classroom. Aside from the three former district regional directors, the defendants who didn’t take the deals received prison terms of one or two years, with the remainder of their five-year sentences to be served on probation.

Schools with high numbers of poor children face enormous hurdles catching their students up to middle-class peers; these schools often have to compensate for the collapse of multiple supports in children’s lives, from family, to personal safety, to adequate housing, to health care. And we’ve been telling poor kids, “Work harder and you will overcome these obstacles and succeed.” Yes, some kids somehow find the resiliency and grit to reach the top despite the boulders in their path. Today, the achievement gap between high- and low-income students is 40 percent wider than a generation ago, mostly because wealthier parents are investing a lot more time, money and energy into their children’s cognitive development.

And if they do, I wish they would provide secure homes for their babies and complete their own education so they can lift themselves and their children out of poverty.

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