Accusations against Atlanta educators predate cheating scandal

Of the 35 former Atlanta educators who were indicted, 22 were never previously investigated by Atlanta Public Schools:

Superintendent Beverly Hall

Human Resources Director Millicent Few

Area superintendent Sharon Davis-Williams

Area superintendent Tamara Cotman

Venetian Elementary Principal Clarietta Davis

Gideons Elementary Principal Armstead Salters

Deerwood Academy Assistant Principal Tabeeka Jordan

Parks Middle School testing coordinator Sandra Ward

Gideons Elementary testing coordinator Sheridan Rogers

Usher-Collier Heights testing coordinator Donald Bullock

Benteen Elementary testing coordinator Theresia Copeland

Kennedy Middle School instructional coach Tameka Goodson

Parks Middle School teacher Starlette Mitchell

Parks Middle School teacher Kimberly Oden

Dobbs Elementary teacher Dessa Curb

Dobbs Elementary teacher Derrick Broadwater

Dunbar Elementary teacher Pamela Cleveland

Dunbar Elementary teacher Shani Robinson

Dunbar Elementary teacher Diane Buckner-Webb

Humphries Elementary teacher Lisa Terry

Humphries Elementary teacher Ingrid Abella-Sly

Humphries Elementary teacher Wendy Ahmed

Three educators were investigated only once, but accusations against them weren’t substantiated and no disciplinary action was taken:

Parks Middle School Assistant Principal Gregory Reid was accused of inappropriately touching a teacher in April 2009. Investigators found that the evidence didn’t support the allegation. His attorney, Dorian Murry, didn’t return a phone call seeking comment.

An assistant principal claimed area superintendent Michael Pitts made sexually harassing comments. Investigators concluded that the allegation lacked substance because the accuser had a “vendetta” after her removal from her position. No dates or details of the harassment were provided. “That case was dismissed,” said attorney George Lawson. “Anybody who wants to bring that up, let them try. Judge (Jerry) Baxter would be livid.”

Dobbs Elementary Principal Dana Evans was accused by a teacher of encouraging and pressuring teachers to cheat on the 2008 CRCT, but an investigator concluded there was no evidence to support the claim. Her attorney, Bob Rubin, said the facts presented during trial will show she’s innocent.

How we got the story

Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Mark Niesse, who covers Atlanta Public Schools, pored over more than 3,000 documents in the personnel and investigative files of 35 educators who have been indicted on a variety of charges related to a state investigative report that revealed widespread cheating on standardized tests by APS educators. The AJC’s investigative team began looking at suspicious test scores in APS several years ago. The newspaper continues to follow the story today.

Even before investigations exposed widespread cheating by Atlanta educators, the school district had looked into allegations against educators who now face criminal charges.

Little action was taken on most of these accusations, which dated from 2001 to 2011 and included altering test answer sheets, sexual harassment of co-workers and hitting students. A state investigative report released in July 2011, which found broad test cheating on standardized tests in 2009, spurred dismissal proceedings against the educators, and all those who were criminally charged eventually resigned or were fired.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Interactives, stories, photos and more on our AJC Investigates: Cheating Our Children page

Atlanta Public Schools internally reviewed complaints against 13 of the 35 former educators who were indicted in March for alleged crimes related to cheating, according to more than 3,000 pages of investigative and personnel files obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The newspaper examined the files to take a closer look at the educators’ employment histories.

Six of the 13 accused educators had at least one claim against them substantiated or were disciplined by the school district. Seven of the 13 were accused but investigators didn’t find enough evidence to recommend further action. The other 22 indicted educators never faced internal investigations.

The documents, disclosed through an open records request, showed that most accusations against the Atlanta educators weren’t substantiated by the school system’s Office of Internal Resolution. The office investigates complaints and grievances involving allegations of employee wrongdoing.

Their investigative files were forwarded to Superintendent Beverly Hall and human resources director Millicent Few, both of whom were among those indicted for allegedly participating in a conspiracy to artificially increase test scores and protect each other. The superintendent makes final decisions on disciplinary matters, said APS spokesman Stephen Alford.

In the case of Christopher Waller, the former principal of Parks Middle School, an Emory University senior working part time for APS accused him of groping her and trying to pull down her pants in 2011. That complaint was corroborated by six witnesses and Waller was found to have engaged in sexual misconduct. Three other times, between 2006 and 2010, the Parks principal had been investigated by APS for sexual improprieties and test cheating. Those complaints were unsubstantiated, according to his records.

Waller’s history could be brought up when he goes to trial. The indictment claims Waller sexually harassed female employees and pressured teachers to cheat. The indictment also says area superintendent Michael Pitts failed to report the cheating allegations to Atlanta Public Schools for investigation.

Waller’s attorney, Don Samuel, said the sexual allegations aren’t relevant to the criminal case.

“Sexual harassment allegations have nothing to do with what we’re dealing with, even though the prosecutor decided to include it in the indictment for no good reason,” Samuel said.

In many of the educators’ cases, APS investigators lacked evidence beyond the word of the person complaining. Unless witnesses came forward, the complaints didn’t go far, even when educators had been accused of misbehavior more than once.

It’s not uncommon for teachers to face complaints from angry parents, upset students or disgruntled co-workers at some point in their careers, said Tim Callahan, spokesman for the Professional Association of Georgia Educators.

“Teachers are very vulnerable and very visible. It’s an easy thing for someone to make an accusation that can damage a career,” Callahan said.

Across the state, the Georgia Professional Standards Commission receives about 80 complaints and issues about 45 sanctions each month, said Paul Shaw, director of educator ethics. The Professional Standards Commission certifies teachers, and its investigations are separate from those conducted by the school district.

In another APS probe, an investigator's report to the school district said that former D.H. Stanton Elementary Principal Willie Davenport falsified attendance records to achieve "adequate yearly progress" under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. The investigator also found evidence that Davenport failed to address accusations that teachers had physically abused students, and selected personal acquaintances to do tutoring that wasn't always performed.

Several other accusations against Davenport, who retired in 2010, were unsubstantiated, including claims that she submitted false discipline records, racially discriminated against a teacher and withdrew students to avoid state testing.

In an April 2011 report, investigators wrote that Davenport created “a culture of wrongdoings” and that she should never be rehired.

Attorney Bob Rubin said Davenport deserves to have a chance to defend herself in court before anyone decides whether she’s guilty.

“It’s a half-completed investigation, and for anybody to base their opinion … on an internal investigation would be a rush to judgment,” Rubin said.

Frances Mack, one of the indicted educators who worked for Davenport, was accused by school employees of working with the principal and other educators as part of a group “to falsify and manipulate records” to maximize federal funding and meet performance standards.

A separate complaint against Mack claimed she threw keys and cursed at an attendance clerk over a $35 debt in the 2008-2009 school year, an allegation that APS investigators substantiated and recommended for disciplinary action. Another report said Mack made an unprofessional comment about a student’s “big behind.” Mack’s attorney, Torris Butterfield, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

Former teacher Angela Williamson of Dobbs Elementary was accused of violence against misbehaving students three times in 2001, 2002 and 2006. A student complained Williamson hit him and knocked books out of his arms; another student said Williamson choked her and pushed her, and a third claimed the teacher hit him and made him do 100 sit-ups.

In each case, investigations concluded that Williamson didn’t use undue physical force.

“She’s never been found to have done anything wrong, even in the cheating investigation,” said her attorney, Gerald Griggs. “These reports come as a surprise, but the findings do not. If anything, it shows she’s a good teacher.”

At Benteen Elementary, the school district hired a lawyer to investigate whether third-grade teacher Sheila Evans had given answers to students when they took the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test, which was the subject of the state investigation and many of the criminal charges. The investigation found that Evans “most likely gave some sort of help to students with their answers.”

But her attorney, Andrew Fiddes, said the evidence will show that Evans didn’t cheat.

“We find it curious how that conclusion was reached when we have notarized statements from multiple students and the proctor who was giving the exam in question who say the exact opposite,” Fiddes said. “We hope Ms. Evans will be dismissed from the case.”

In 2008, former Kennedy Middle School Principal Lucious Brown was accused of being involved in fraudulently inflating the income of secretary Carol Dennis, who also faces criminal charges, so that she could qualify for a home loan. An investigative report, which is missing two pages, says Brown alleged his signature was forged on an employment verification form for the loan. An investigation found there was probable cause to suspect Brown’s involvement, but a forensic handwriting analysis would be needed for substantiation. There’s no indication in Brown’s personnel file that any further action was taken.

“These documents show Dr. Brown did nothing wrong whatsoever,” said his attorney, Brian Steel.

Dennis was investigated along with Brown. Her attorney, Steven Berne, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

Other investigations against indicted educators included:

— Dunbar Elementary testing coordinator Lera Middlebrooks being accused of providing students with two sample topics that were similar to actual questions on the 2009 Georgia Writing Assessment. Middlebrooks was issued an official warning, was removed as a testing coordinator and reported to the Georgia Professional Standards Commission. Her attorney, Bruce Harvey, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

— Dunbar Elementary teacher Gloria Ivey being accused of hitting several students with a ruler in 2004. Then -superintendent Hall recommended disciplinary action against Ivey, whose personnel file doesn’t indicate what, if any, action was taken. “I don’t think it would have any relevance in the trial in this current case,” said attorney Sanford Wallack.

— Dobbs Elementary teacher Shayla Smith being accused by a student of using profanity and calling a fifth-grade student a liar. An investigation determined that Smith exhibited unprofessional conduct, and she was issued a warning. Her attorney, Eldridge Suggs, did not return a phone call seeking comment.

APS spokesman Alford said the district takes all complaints about the behavior of employees very seriously.

“Our kids deserve our focus to be on educating them, not on what has happened to educators, whether they were indicted or not. Class doesn’t stop because of an indictment.”