Eight Atlanta educators convicted of conspiracy to boost students' test scores received stiff sentences Tuesday in a school cheating scandal that sparked an emotional debate over race, testing and the prospect of sending elementary school teachers to prison under state racketeering laws.
Three top administrators were sentenced to seven years in prison, with 13 years' probation. Five lower-ranking educators received one- to two-year prison terms.
The sentences, handed down by Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry W. Baxter after the defendants refused more lenient plea agreements, were so harsh that even the prosecutor had qualms.
"We didn't start out with the goal of putting educators in jail," said Fulton County Dist. Atty. Paul Howard after the sentencing, emphasizing that teachers and administrators had been offered a chance to fare better if they had admitted guilt, apologized and waived their rights to appeal.
Of the 11 educators convicted in the case — all African Americans teaching in low-income schools — two took the deal. Eight stood fast, insisting on their innocence and their right to appeal.
"This isn't justice," said Barbara Holly-Lutalo, a friend of former Principal Dana Evans, who was sentenced to a year in prison and 1,000 hours of community service. "None of these teachers have ever been charged with anything in their life. And this is what their life comes to? Jail! In this country?"
The cheating scandal was the worst in the nation's history, and raised questions about high-stakes testing in public schools, the alleged targeting of black teachers and the impact on children when school administrators go to extreme lengths to raise lagging test scores.
From the beginning, the community has been sharply divided, with much of the debate occurring outside the courtroom, in protests and prayer vigils.
Some have insisted that elementary school teachers should not be sent to prison under laws originally intended for gangsters. But many parents complained that teachers were receiving bonuses for inflated test scores even as their students — many struggling to read and write — lost their chance at federal funding for remedial education because their high test scores made it look like they needed no help.
Baxter had urged the educators Monday to take the prosecutors' deal, warning that he would mete out harsh punishments to those who declined. "Yesterday I said to everyone, this is the time to search your soul and maybe we could just end this," said the judge, clearly irate. "Nobody has taken any responsibility as far as I can see."
Colleen Banks, the mother of a 16-year-old student who was held back twice in seventh grade, had little pity for the educators. "They said she was doing good, but her homework wasn't reflecting that she was doing good," she said at a prosecutors' news conference Tuesday. "If they had did what they [were] supposed to [do], maybe things wouldn't be like they are now."
George Lawson, attorney for administrator Michael Pitts, told the judge his client's sentence was "unjust and unfair," but the judge was having none of it.
"I think there were hundreds and thousands of kids who were lost in the schools," Baxter retorted. "That's what gets lost. Everyone's crying, but this is not a victimless crime that occurred in this city."
The hearing was contentious and at times emotional.
Defense attorneys objected when Baxter declared he would not grant first-time offender status to all the convicted educators, meaning their records would be wiped clean once they served their time. On Monday, the attorneys said, the judge had said he would.
"That was yesterday morning, before I saw the light," Baxter said. "Things change. All I want from any of these people is just to take some responsibility. They refuse. They refuse!"
One defense attorney accused the judge of "going back and forth on emotion" and urged him to step aside. Baxter threatened to throw him in jail before finally agreeing to grant all the defendants first-offender status.
The case began in 2013, when 35 educators were indicted on charges including racketeering, making false statements and theft. Two died, and several pleaded guilty to lesser charges.
Of the 12 remaining defendants, 11 were convicted 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 is scheduled to be sentenced later.
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.
Outside the courtroom, some defense attorneys said they had rejected the proposed plea deals because their clients were innocent of conspiring to cheat. Several said they hoped to continue fighting the convictions on appeal.
"It wasn't a very hard decision," said Robert Rubin, attorney for Dana Evans, one of those who spurned the deal and planned to appeal. "She couldn't say something that wasn't true."
Gerald Griggs, attorney for Angela Williamson, also rejected it. "I think the conviction will be overturned," he said.
On appeal, some of the attorneys have said, they will argue that educators were forced to make potentially incriminating statements to investigators or risk losing their jobs. They will also challenge the racial makeup of the jury pool, contending that African Americans were underrepresented. The judge rejected that claim last year.
Two defendants accepted the plea deal. Donald Bullock, a former testing coordinator, will spend six months of weekends in jail and five years on probation. Pamela Cleveland, a former elementary school teacher, agreed to one year of home confinement and five years' probation.
Later Tuesday, the district attorney's office said it was working with local pastors, including the Rev. Bernice King, daughter of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., to set up a nonprofit to help the students who were deprived of remedial help.
"We've sent a horrible message about character in education," said King, who noted she was a product of Atlanta's public schools.
Still, she said the sentences were a little stiff.
"I'm a licensed attorney, but I'm also a minister of the Gospel," she said. "The balance between justice and mercy is always weighed in my heart."