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Judge in Atlanta school cheating scandal may reconsider tough sentences

Atlanta judge may be ready to reduce harsh sentences of teachers convicted under RICO law

In yet another unexpected twist in the Atlanta public school cheating scandal, the judge on Monday appeared poised to reconsider the stiff sentences he meted out to some of the former educators convicted of inflating students’ test scores.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry W. Baxter sentenced eight educators to prison last week, reserving his harshest punishment -- seven years in prison -- for three senior administrators.

Benjamin Davis, an attorney for senior Atlanta Public Schools administrator Tamara Cotman, said Monday evening that the judge had set a resentencing date of April 30 for his client. At least one other former senior administrator, Sharon Davis-Williams, also is scheduled to be resentenced, a representative of her attorney's office told the Los Angeles Times.

Prosecutors had recommended three-year prison terms for the highest-ranking officials, but the judge – apparently incensed that they had rejected a last-minute plea agreement – sentenced them to seven years in prison, plus 13 years' probation.

The news of the resentencing stunned defense attorneys for some of the other convicted educators— lower-ranking elementary school teachers and principals who had received one- to two-year prison terms.

“I can tell you that I will be filing a motion for resentencing as soon as the courthouse opens at 9 a.m. tomorrow,” said Gerald Griggs, an attorney for convicted elementary school teacher Angela Williamson, who received a two-year prison sentence.

Griggs described Baxter’s move as “extraordinary” and said community sentiments may have swayed the judge.

“I think the community as a united front felt that the teachers did not deserve lengthy prison sentences,” Griggs said. “Maybe the judge heard the community.” 

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. One was acquitted, and another was  to be sentenced later. Baxter imposed sentences on the remaining 10. 

The Atlanta community has been sharply divided over the sentences of the educators, all African Americans who were at low-income schools. Many parents complained that teachers had received bonuses for inflating test scores even as their students — many struggling to read and write — lost their chance at federal funding for remedial education. Yet some questioned whether elementary school teachers should be sent to prison.

Baxter had urged the educators to take a last-minute deal from prosecutors that would have allowed them to avoid harsh punishment in exchange for taking responsibility, apologizing for changing students’ test scores and waiving  their right to appeal. He warned he would mete out harsh sentences to those who declined. Only two accepted; one was sentenced to six months of weekends in jail and five years' probation, the other, to one year of home confinement and five years' probation.

Once Baxter sentenced the remaining eight, even the prosecutor had qualms. 

“We didn’t start out with the goal of putting educators in jail,”  Fulton County Dist. Atty. Paul Howard said.

A state investigation found that as early as 2005, educators gave 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. Teachers who tried to report it were threatened with retaliation.

Investigators accused administrators of creating a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation,” and of using data as an “abusive and cruel weapon” to coax employees into crossing ethical lines. Teachers received bonuses if their students performed well on standardized tests, and were threatened with demotion or even termination if their schools did not meet annual progress targets.

Throughout the trial, Baxter reacted and then reconsidered, said Ronald Carlson, chairman of law emeritus at the University of Georgia. Such resentencings are rare but not unprecedented, he said.

"It may be that the judge has rethought the severity of the sentences," Carlson said in a telephone interview with The Times. If the judge takes a more measured look, perhaps modifying the sentences closer to the prosecution's recommendations, that would be likely to lower the educators' grounds for appeal, he said.

"As an appellate judge once said to me: 'Judges have hearts too,'" Carlson said.



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