As co-defendants enter prison, Atlanta teacher criticizes trial

Shani Robinson, one of 11 convicted Atlanta Public Schools educators, can't hide her emotion in prayer during a rally at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 7, 2015.



Shani Robinson, one of 11 convicted Atlanta Public Schools educators, can't hide her emotion in prayer during a rally at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta on Tuesday, April 7, 2015.

Two of the Atlanta Public Schools educators found guilty in the cheating scandal are expected to turn themselves in today to begin serving their prison sentences.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reconsider the case against Tamara Cotman and Angela Williamson, who are among the 11 former teachers and administrators found guilty of racketeering three years ago.

Cotman was sentenced to three years and Williamson to two.

As the AJC reported:

All but one of the 12 who went to trial were found guilty of racketeering. Of the 11 convicted, two admitted guilt in court, a move that brought lighter punishments, including weekend jail time for one, and kept them out of prison.

The remaining seven defendants have indicated their plans to seek a new trial in Fulton County Superior Court and have remained free on bond.

Among those seeking a new trial in Fulton County Superior Court is Shani Robinson, who addresses her case in a guest column today. Robinson has  co-written a book, "None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators." It is due out in January.

A first-grade teacher at Dunbar Elementary and a member of Teach for America, Robinson was convicted of racketeering and one count false statements and writings. She was sentenced to a year in prison, four years probation, 1,000 hours of community service and a $1,000 fine.

Robinson declined to accept a plea bargain and continues to maintain her innocence.  The state probe into APS cheating by teachers on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests — a statewide assessment for how students were doing  — began after a lengthy AJC investigation revealed improbable test score rises in many Atlanta classrooms. Teachers and administrators were convicted of erasing wrong answers in an effort to boost scores, or coordinating and supporting those efforts.

By Shani Robinson

The shadow that’s been hanging over Atlanta Public Schools for years grew darker today.

Two of my co-defendants in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial are about to turn themselves into authorities and now face prison time and a traumatic separation from their children and families. Last week, the US Supreme Court declined to hear appeals brought by Tamara Cotman and Angela Williamson. Meanwhile, the rest of the defendants, myself included, remain in limbo as our joint appeal is pending.

It’s stunning to me that Cotman and Williamson’s appeal has ended in defeat. Every step of the way, from indictment to sentencing, I’ve felt sure that the lack of evidence against us, along with the deep flaws that sullied the investigation and trial, would finally be taken seriously and our names would be cleared. When that failed to happen, I decided to expose as much as I could about the unsavory events that led to our wrongful convictions. With journalist Anna Simonton I authored “None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators, which will be released in January.

Tamara and Angela’s appeal hinged on Judge Jerry Baxter’s questionable instructions to the jury. Their lawyers argued that Baxter was wrong when he said that although we were accused of violating both subsections of Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (law, he would allow a conviction if the jury found that we had violated just one. As prosecutor Clint Rucker nonsensically put it in his closing statement, “In the indictment, where it says [the defendants did] A and B, what that really means is ‘or.’ That’s just some lawyer stuff.”

Tamara’s appeal also called into question the fact she was tried on RICO charges with the rest of us, even though in an earlier trial she was found not guilty of influencing a witness. In her case, that was the only charge underlying RICO, which usually can only be applied on top of at least two other charges. But thanks to special prosecutor John Floyd, the way RICO was applied in this case pushed––and possibly overstepped––the limits of the law. He made it such that anyone who was actively employed byAPS during the dates in question could be classified as a racketeer.

It’s baffling how the high court justices found reason to uphold the convictions under those circumstances. What’s most frustrating is that the cheating case shouldn’t rest on these details alone. The whole case was built on innumerable instances of wrongdoing and unfairness that altogether amount to a travesty of justice.

The reality is that the efforts to root out cheating in APS have been rife with corruption and hypocrisy from the beginning. At the same time that Gov. Sonny Perdue shelled out millions of dollars for special investigators and the GBI to determine whether APS’s 2009 CRCT scores were fraudulent, he turned around and used those exact same test scores in an application for a $400 million federal Race to the Top grant, which Georgia won

From there, the investigation into APS became like a riptide, dragging under innocent people as law enforcement agents used intimidation tactics to get educators to point fingers in exchange for immunity, leading to false accusations. Though cheating was prevalent across the state, and the nation, only in Atlanta were teachers indicted on overblown conspiracy charges originally created to take down the American Mafia. Those who were guilty of cheating took plea deals that amounted to a slap on the wrist, while the rest of us faced decades in prison as we sought to prove our innocence in court.

The case was nearly dismissed multiple times only to be resuscitated by last minute changes of heart on the part of Judge Baxter, who became increasingly volatile as the case wore on. Compared to the media spectacle surrounding his antics and the tearful testimony of witnesses for the prosecution, there was scant coverage of the repeated calls for mistrial, blatant prosecutorial misconduct, witnesses who perjured themselves and others who recanted. Even Judge Baxter admitted that some of the witnesses’ stories weren’t adding up.

Nor did reporters delve into the glaring holes in the specific accusations against us. I thought for sure I would be acquitted because I never received bonus money and my first-grade students’ test scores were just for practice––they didn’t count toward the district’s nor the federal government’s benchmarks for improving test scores.

Even for those who did receive bonuses, they didn’t amount to motivation for cheating. One of the lead investigators, Bob Wilson clearly stated on the witness stand, “The bonuses had little to do, from what we could determine, as to why cheating occurred.” Indeed, the people who stood trial altogether received a total of only $1,500 in bonuses. Yet prosecutors insisted, and the media parroted, that we had cheated for financial gain.

The trial was a farce, and yet it was the longest and costliest in Georgia’s history. The bill to taxpayers, already in the millions of dollars, gets bigger with each day that the case remains open. Meanwhile, the state hasn’t followed through on implementing a “redemption program” in which convicted educators are supposed to engage in community services aimed at fixing the harms caused by cheating. It’s clear District Attorney Paul Howard was never really interested in justice, but in furthering his career with a trial that became a media sensation.

Judge Baxter tried to bully us into waiving our constitutional right to appeal, but why should I accept a felony conviction for something I didn’t do? Some would like to believe that if a few educators go to prison, we can put the cheating scandal to rest. But we can’t, because the problems in our education system that spawned cheating remain unsolved. Racial inequities, under-resourced schools, high-stakes testing, the rise of a for-profit education market that’s siphoning tax dollars away from public schools, and the unethical use of education funding for private real estate development in Atlanta––these conditions must be addressed in order to truly seek justice for the children, parents, and educators of APS.

The state should free Tamara and Angela and drop the charges against all of us. Only then can the people of Atlanta turn our attention from the shadow of the cheating scandal to look at what has cast that shadow in the first place. Then we can truly tackle the barriers standing between justice and injustice, between our children and the futures they deserve.