One after the other, eight convicted educators said Friday they did not cheat, they are not racketeers and they are not guilty in the massive Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal.
And that is why, each said, they did not take plea deals that would have spared them years-long prison sentences. In exchange for lenient punishment, all they would have had to do is read an admission of guilt written by prosecutors and apologize for the damage done to students and Atlanta’s reputation.
“I have no regrets about not taking the deal. I’m innocent,” said former Dunbar Elementary School teacher Diane Buckner-Webb.
“I would not be able to take a deal that would have perjured myself. I wasn’t able to compromise my integrity,” said Tamara Cotman, one of three former APS regional directors found guilty.
A jury found that Cotman, Buckner-Webb and nine of their fellow defendants violated the Georgia Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act by using the Atlanta school system as a criminal enterprise to cheat and cover up the cheating. All but two of the defendants were also convicted of lesser felonies.
Jurors told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution they are confident the 11 they convicted were part of a conspiracy to change answers on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in order to meet federal benchmarks, win bonuses and accolades, or simply keep their jobs. Witnesses testified they saw teachers cheating, and said administrators knew about it, did nothing to stop it, and in some cases even punished whistle-blowers.
Not true, the convicted educators said. While they didn’t criticize the jurors, they said the verdicts were based on lies from witnesses with grudges.
Each educator expressed confidence they will win on appeal, in which case the court could toss out the conviction or order a new trial. The appeals process could take two to three years. In the meantime they are free on bond.
“The truth does set you free,” Cotman said.
Cotman first went on trial in the cheating case almost two years ago, when she fought a charge of influencing a witness. She won acquittal that time, and her lawyer says the jurors who just convicted Cotman of violating the RICO law heard the same facts as the jurors in 2013, which is why he’s optimistic about her appeal.
Cotman and the two other regional directors — Michael Pitts and Sharon Davis-Williams — received the harshest punishment: seven years in prison plus 13 years’ probation.
“I don’t plan to spend seven years in prison,” Davis-Williams said. “I do have faith our justice system will work even though it’s failed me once.”
Former Dobbs Elementary teacher Angela Williamson — convicted of racketeering, two counts of false writings and statements and two counts of false swearings — said her children and the rest of her family told her to fight her conviction, for which she was sentenced to two years in prison.
“I’m innocent,” Williamson said. “I have two … children. I have their future to think about.”
But other children — her former students — testified during trial that Williamson helped them on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. And a statistics expert testified that the odds of 17 of Williamson’s students improving on the standardized test as they did was 1 in 284 septillion.
Also sentenced to two years in prison is former Deerwood Academy assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan, while Buckner-Webb, former Dobbs principal Dana Evans and former Benteen Elementary School testing coordinator Theresia Copeland were sentenced to a year in prison. All were sentenced to probation and have community service requirements.
When it came time for Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter to announce the punishments on Tuesday, two of the 11 convicted accepted the prosecutors’ plea deal. They were spared prison because they agreed to give Baxter and District Attorney Paul Howard what each man wanted most: to hear someone admit guilt. Former Usher-Collier Heights Elementary School testing coordinator Donald Bullock will spend six months of weekends in the Fulton County Jail and former Dunbar teacher Pamela Cleveland has a 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew for a year. Both will serve five years probation and must perform many hours of community service.
Former Dunbar Elementary teacher Shani Robinson was pregnant during the trial and gave birth this month. She, too, is one of the 11 convicted and will be sentenced in August.
Two jurors told the AJC in an exclusive interview that they believe the accused ringleader of the conspiracy, former Superintendent Beverly Hall, would have been convicted as well. But Hall died of breast cancer before she could be tried. Many of the convicted educators told reporters they do not blame Hall and some even said they admired her.
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