More than a year since a state investigation exposed widespread cheating in Atlanta Public Schools, some of the accused educators are still fighting to clear their names.
The school district has spent more than $1.7 million hiring outside attorneys to assist with the cases. With appeals and court challenges, it could be a year or more before all are resolved.
“It’s an unfortunate chapter, but it’s part of our history now, and it’s something we have to get through,” said Stephen Alford, executive director of communications. “So while we would prefer not to have to spend money on these hearings, we have to. We owe it to the parents, the stakeholders and the employees to go through this process.”
The process hasn’t always been smooth. The hearings, going on since March, have been marked by delays and legal wrangling. Recordings of alleged confessions made to the GBI have been available in some cases, but not others. Sixteen educators implicated in the report have been reinstated, in some cases because the district didn’t have enough evidence to fire them.
In July 2011, specially appointed state investigators found cheating and named almost 180 teachers, principals and administrators as participants. Their report cited a range of violations – from holding parties to change answers to instructing students to recheck work if they noticed an incorrect response.
Many of the accused opted to resign or retire rather than challenge efforts to fire them. But some argued that the actions that got them in trouble, such as urging students to “listen again,” were just techniques to get student to focus during testing.
Those accused face three possible punishments: criminal charges, loss of a teaching certificate and termination from the school district. Each has its own process of hearings and appeals.
The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office has been investigating for several months, and a Fulton grand jury has been issuing subpoenas for documents and hearing testimony. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in May that Atlanta lawyer John Floyd, the state’s leading expert in racketeering prosecutions, was brought in to assist the investigation and any possible prosecution.
It is not clear how close District Attorney Paul Howard is to deciding whether to ask the grand jury for indictments. A spokeswoman for the DA’s Office declined to comment.
The Professional Standards Commission, which oversees the licenses of Georgia educators, has recommended sanctions against about 144 of those named in the cheating scandal. Generally, it has voted to revoke the certificates of administrators and suspend for two years the certificates of teachers.
About 40 Atlanta educators, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall and her top administrators, don’t know yet if the commission will take action against their teaching licenses, said John Grant, the commission’s chief investigator. In these cases, the commission is waiting on evidence that could come from the criminal investigation. Hall retired before the investigative report was released and has denied any knowledge of cheating.
Educators can challenge the commission’s ruling, and hearings have been requested in about 120 cases so far. Next, the State Attorney General’s office may try to negotiate settlements with these educators. So far, seven have agreed to lesser 60-day license suspensions in exchange for their cooperation with the state.
Idalina Couto’s 20-year teaching career with Atlanta Public Schools ended in May when a panel of educators upheld a decision to fire her for breaking testing procedure and failing to report cheating. A two-year suspension of her certificate was recommended. Couto said she’s innocent and is challenging the ruling on her teaching certificate. She wants to keep fighting the charges against her, but says she can’t afford an attorney.
“I just happened to get caught up in the crossfire of the mess they created,” Couto said. “It’s affected my kids, my family, me. I’ve been dealing with depression. I’ve done nothing wrong, but proving that requires finances.”
APS placed educators named in the report on paid administrative leave while the district built cases to fire them. More than 100 retired or resigned after the report was released. But dozens stayed on and were able to request employment hearings because of educator job protections in Georgia law. They are no longer being paid.
Several attorneys for the accused have raised concerns about the fairness of the process.
Attorney Sharese Shields Ages said the district is relying too heavily on evidence collected during the state investigation, rather than doing an independent probe. She said there’s been no chance for attorneys to independently examine test-erasure data — the roadmap of the investigation.
APS officials said they are following the law related to the hearings and working to ensure they are fair. Three educators have won in tribunal hearings, according to the district.
Those who lose can appeal to the state school board, but the stakes are still high.
“Once you lose a fair dismissal hearing, that’s pretty much the sound of the death knell for your career in education,” Shields Ages said. “It’s very hard to move on after resigning or being terminated.”
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Bill Rankin contributed to this story.