APS jurors: Hall was to blame

Complete coverage

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will continue to seek the answers you want as we keep covering the outcome and aftermath of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating case.

The people: Our reporters and photographers will be there Monday when 10 of the 11 educators who stood trial and were found guilty are sentenced, reporting as it happens on our website, myajc.com, on social media and in print. If you've wondered what effect the convictions will have on the pensions these longtime school professionals have built up, we'll tell you.

The issues: Comprehensive coverage that day and after will include an examination of the issue that has been on so many minds, what is the appropriate punishment for these people? We'll report how that question has been answered in courts elsewhere, in the other test-cheating cases around the country. We'll also update you on what's become of the many who were labeled 'unindicted co-conspirators.'

The full story: Besides the latest developments in depth, the comprehensive coverage you can find online includes our stories and photos from the very beginning of the investigation, timelines, details on the backgrounds of the 11 convicted, interviews and videotape stories on the only defendant found not guilty, and a student and parent who reflect on the cheating's effect on their lives. Find this and more on myajc.com.

Former Atlanta school superintendent Beverly Hall probably would have been found guilty of racketeering and orchestrating a scheme to inflate student test scores if she had lived long enough to stand trial, according to two people who served on the jury in the test-cheating trial.

George Little, who was foreman of the high-profile jury, and another juror, Raquel Sabogal, said in an exclusive interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on Thursday they believe evidence showed Hall pressured educators to change students' standardized test scores, creating an atmosphere that rewarded cheaters, punished whistleblowers and covered up wrongdoing.

“It was pretty clear to us” there was organized cheating, said Little, adding that Hall had “no checks and balances on her.”

“You put a dishonest person in place, you’re going to get burned.”

Sabogal echoed those comments, blaming Hall for the nation’s largest test-cheating scandal: “She (Hall) knew everything that was going on.”

The two jurors offered the public’s first glimpse into the closed-door deliberations capping a nearly 7 months-long trial, which ended April 1 with the dramatic scene of convicted Atlanta Public Schools educators being hauled to jail in handcuffs.

Little and Sabogal say the lengthy trial should not have been needed, because those who chose to stand trial should have instead pleaded guilty and could have quickly returned to their lives. They pointed to Millicent Few, the former APS human resources director, who pleaded guilty to misdemeanor malfeasance and has completed her 12 months on probation.

“She’s walking around today,” Little said. “And we have teachers going to jail.”

The jurors also expressed empathy for the convicted educators and said they believed some were paying the penalty for Hall’s actions. They believe pressure and fear of losing their jobs pushed the educators to cheat.

Ten of those convicted are to be sentenced Monday. The 11th, first-grade teacher Shani Robinson, is expecting a baby this month and is to be sentenced in August. One of the 12 who went to trial, retired Dobbs Elementary School teacher Dessa Curb, was acquitted.

Hall was accused of setting unrealistic targets for higher test scores to meet federal benchmarks. But her defenders, including those who spoke at Hall's funeral in March, have hailed her as a public school reformer and visionary who raised standards and modernized Atlanta schools with a mantra of "no exceptions, no excuses."

Hall strongly denied any wrongdoing but faced as much as 45 years in prison for racketeering and other offenses.

Sabogal said she accidentally learned of Hall’s death from breast cancer before jury deliberations – which lasted 8 days – began in late March. She believes none of the other jurors knew Hall would never be tried.

Besides Hall, the jurors were also disappointed in the Atlanta business community, which defended the embattled Hall during the test-cheating scandal.

“The business community and other people of influence in Atlanta seemed to be blindly supporting Hall,” Little said.

He said the bonuses tied to high test scores may have motivated Hall to push for improvements in scores. “It sounds like her primary (motivation) was getting the teacher of the year, speaking at Harvard, getting the national accolades,” Little said.

Little and Sabogal say jurors worked well together throughout the trial, and there was unanimous agreement on the verdicts. The six men and six women also developed a close bond during the trial, celebrating holidays, birthdays and other life events together.

Though there were lighthearted moments, jurors never forgot why they were there. Little said the group took its job very seriously, taking copious notes. He said they thoughtfully reviewed the evidence involving each defendant before making any decisions.

Little and Sabogal said they were both very emotional the day the verdicts were announced. In the courtroom, Little said he could hear people weeping.

Jurors were saddened and angered because the cheating hurt some of the school district's most vulnerable students, those challenged by poverty and other social problems.

“The kids got lost in this,” said Little, adding that serving during the trial made him realize “the importance of their education at this time. You’ve got one shot at this and we have to do better.”

Sabogal agreed: “It really made me realize how important those middle school years are. Those teachers have a super important job,” she said.

The jurors' statements come just days before most of the educators found guilty of racketeering in the test-cheating trial face sentencing. All of the 11 convicted face up to 20 years in prison on one count alone, violating Georgia's Racketeer-Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. The eight convicted on additional counts could get more time.

In total, 32 former educators were convicted, counting the 21 who pleaded guilty to lesser charges before the trial’s start last year. Two others, including Hall, died before they could be tried.

The test-cheating trial capped a saga that began in 2008, when the AJC broke the first of several stories highlighting suspect test scores in APS and other Georgia districts. As the AJC kept digging, special investigators were eventually appointed by the governor and reported findings of wrong-doing.