Verdict Reached In Atlanta School Cheating Case
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
A massive cheating scandal that rocked the Atlanta Public School system came to an end today. A jury convicted 11 of 12 former educators on charges ranging from conspiracy to racketeering. They had changed answers on students' standardized tests. Jim Burress of member station WABE has this story, and we note that the station's broadcast license is held by the Atlanta Board of Education, but its newsroom operates independently of the board.
JIM BURRESS, BYLINE: One of the educators, an elementary school teacher, was acquitted of all charges. This afternoon, Judge Jerry Baxter read the verdicts of the other 11.
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JERRY BAXTER: Count one, conspiracy to violate the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. We, the jury, find the defendant guilty.
BURRESS: Each was found guilty on the most serious charge - violating Georgia's RICO Act. That charge is normally reserved for those involved in organized crime. That's exactly how prosecutors framed the educator's behavior. Paul Howard is Fulton County's district attorney. He says the 20 teachers and administrators who took a plea deal to avoid trial set the stage for today's verdicts.
PAUL HOWARD: It allowed people to understand that this was a substantial case that involved substantial wrongdoing. It's easy for people to recognize that something bad happened.
PAGE PATE: And the state came to us early and offered us a misdemeanor plea where my client would only have to do 12 months of probation, which he could actually do early and finish in six months.
BURRESS: That's defense attorney Page Pate who represented one of the teachers who took the plea. Those who pleaded to a lower charge claimed they faced top-down pressure from former school Superintendent Beverly Hall to beef up student scores in order to make the district look good. Hall's lawyer successfully argued she was too sick to stand trial. She died last month of breast cancer. The widespread cheating took place in 2009 and was uncovered in an investigation by The Atlanta Journal Constitution.
The 11 found guilty today face up to 20 years in prison on the racketeering charges alone. Some will also serve time on conspiracy charges and for lying. Billy Linville is a spokesman for the Atlanta Public School system. He says the verdicts represent a sad and tragic chapter for the district.
BILLY LINVILLE: We have a lot of work to do to continue to build the confidence of the public and our parents. And we're going to do that and make sure that this - something like this never happens again.
BURRESS: After the verdicts were read, defense attorneys protested Judge Baxter's order that the 11 be taken immediately to jail.
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BAXTER: I don't like to send anybody to jail. It's not one of the things I get a kick out of, but they have made their bed, and they're going to have to lie in them.
BURRESS: Those found guilty were taken from the courthouse in handcuffs. They'll remain in jail until sentencing next week. For NPR News, I'm Jim Burress in Atlanta.
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