Atlanta judge reduces stiff sentences of cheating educators

1 May 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

APS judge bids “Adios” but not before addressing role of poverty in children’s lives.

Michael Pitts, former Atlanta Public Schools school reform team director, listens April 13, 2015, to his daughter Kristen during a statements during sentencing of 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial in Fulton County Superior Court in Atlanta.(Photo: Kent D.

In an unusual action, the judge presiding over the landmark Atlanta public school cheating trial changed his mind and on Thursday lightened the stiff prison sentences he meted out two weeks ago to high-ranking educators convicted of inflating students’ test scores.An Atlanta judge on Thursday reduced the sentences of three former school administrators convicted of participating in a widespread test-cheating scandal, saying he was uncomfortable with the stiff sentences he handed down earlier this month.Judge Jerry Baxter cut three former Atlanta educators’ sentences by more than half Thursday, saying he wanted to do something he thought was more fair.

Judge Jerry Baxter, who oversaw the months-long trial, gave Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts each 10-year sentences — three to be served in prison and seven on probation; 2,000 hours of community service, and a $10,000 fine. 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.

A judge reduced former Atlanta educator Sharon Davis Williams’ sentence from seven years in prison to three and reduced her fine from $25,000 to $10,000 in court April 30. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. 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.

The sentences in one of the country’s largest school cheating scandals still were higher than prosecutors’ recommendations, but the prison time equals those suggestions. 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.

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. Eleven educators were convicted April 1 of violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations law, a statute originally intended to prosecute mobsters and drug cartels, for conspiring to change students’ answers on tests to ensure that schools met new high-stakes testing goals. 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. 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. 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 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.

It will offer those victims of the cheating scandal remedial classes, job training and help getting into college. “And if I’m not correct (and the sentences are overturned), you still will have served the community,” Baxter said. “These are smart people, and I think they have something to offer.” 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. 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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