NATION

Judge in Atlanta school cheating case reduces stiff prison sentences

'When a judge goes home and keeps thinking over and over that something's wrong, something is usually wrong'

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.

Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry W. Baxter cut the seven-year 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.”

Attorneys for the convicted educators raised no objections to the lighter sentences, yet said they would continue to move forward with their plans to appeal.

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, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and Atlanta mayor — pleaded for leniency and questioned the wisdom of jail time, arguing the educators had no 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 convicted educators, he emphasized, had consistently refused to accept responsibility for their roles in the scandal, which he called “the sickest thing that’s ever happened in this town.”

While many criticized the sentences — which were longer than some violent criminals face — others insisted that prison 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.

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. One defendant was acquitted, and another is to be sentenced in August.

Before sentencing on April 14, Baxter had urged the convicted educators to accept an offer from prosecutors that would have allowed them to avoid extensive time behind bars in exchange for taking responsibility, apologizing and waiving their right to appeal. Only two accepted.

Clearly rankled that the majority refused to accept the last-minute deal, Baxter sentenced the remaining eight educators to prison, reserving his harshest punishment for the highest-ranking educators. Sharon Davis-Williams, Michael Pitts and Tamara Cotman, all regional supervisors with Atlanta Public Schools, each received seven years in prison, 13 years of probation and a $25,000 fine.

But a few days later, Baxter had second thoughts and notified the trio of senior administrators that he had scheduled another hearing. On Thursday, he reduced the administrators’ sentences to three years in prison and seven years of probation, with a $10,000 fine and 2,000 hours of community service.

“I’m going to put myself out to pasture in the not-too-distant future, and I don’t want to be out in the pasture with any regrets,” the judge said.

While many speculated the judge had been swayed by community sentiment, legal experts noted his reasoning could be more calculated. All of the convicted educators who received prison sentences have said they plan to appeal. By taking a more measured look at the sentences, modifying them closer to the prosecution's recommendations, the judge could limit the educators' prospects in appellate courts.

“I’m not Oliver Wendell Holmes, but I do have a feel for trials and cases, and it’s my humble opinion that this case is going to be affirmed,” Baxter said after he had detailed the new sentences. The convicted educators, he advised, should go ahead and start performing community service with students as they go through the appeals process.

There are few precedents for such a punishment. Academic misconduct rarely ends up in criminal court, and when it does it usually results in probation or a short period of incarceration.

In a recent cheating scandal in Ohio, a senior administrator with Columbus’ public schools was sentenced to 15 days in jail last year after pleading no contest to attempted tampering with government records. The former superintendent of the school system was given one year of probation and a former assistant principal was sentenced to two years of probation.

The Atlanta cheating case is different, however, because so many of the educators refused to plead guilty.

Throughout the trial, the state portrayed the three senior administrators as key players in Atlanta’s cheating scandal, which implicated nearly 180 educators across 44 schools. The schools’ former superintendent, Beverly L. Hall, was charged but did not appear in court as she struggled with stage IV breast cancer. She died March 2.

A 2011 state report found the administrators created a “culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation” to pressure 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.

Defense attorneys say administrators did not instruct lower-level educators to cheat. Prosecutors say the administrators not only turned a blind eye to suspicious jumps in test scores, but also pressured teachers to improve scores, covered up cheating and punished whistle-blowers.

Vernetta Keith Nuriddin, a parent who lives in southwestern Atlanta, believes the high-ranking officials provided little oversight and were too eager to report unbelievable gains.

In first grade, her son struggled to read, yet his test scores had him performing at the fifth-grade level. “They told me he was in the top 1% of the state, yet I could see he couldn’t read,” she said in a telephone interview. When she approached Sharon Davis-Williams, the regional director was curt and dismissive, Nuriddin said.

“Maybe some of those folks fell in a gray area, where they knew there was an issue going on, yet just looked the other way,” Nuriddin said. “It’s hard to say. But it’s clear they didn’t care enough to investigate the allegations.”

Nuriddin believes prosecutors overreached in bringing racketeering charges against the educators, yet she is weary of the legal back-and-forth and suspicious that the judge is yielding to public pressure.

“How long can this go on?” she said. “I’m going to give you a chance, another chance, another chance.... OK, how many chances are we going to give them? How many times is the judge going to bend a little more?”

After presiding over the longest trial in Georgia’s history, Baxter said he was ready to move on. Yet he left some parting words before he exited the courtroom.

“There is a lot more to this tragedy than the teaching,” he said, citing the poverty and “utter hopelessness” in a lot of Atlanta neighborhoods. “I don’t know what the community is to do, but hopefully after going through this our community will put a microscope on the problems.”

nation@latimes.com

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

4:12 p.m.: The story was updated throughout with new details.

The story was originally published at 12:06 p.m.

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