A former fourth-grade teacher Wednesday became the first defendant to plead guilty in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating scandal.
Lisa Terry, who taught at Humphries Elementary School, apologized for the “disgrace and hardship” she’d caused her family and apologized to the students and parents affected by her actions. She said she bowed to pressure from administrators and allowed her 17 students to go back and change their answers on the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.
Terry said she verbally provided the correct answers to her students and knew what she was doing would help the school system fraudulently reach “unrealistic and unreasonable targets,” her plea agreement said.
Terry agreed to cooperate and testify for Fulton County prosecutors in their racketeering case against the remaining 33 defendants, including former Superintendent Beverly Hall.
Atlanta lawyer Jeff Brickman, a former DeKalb district attorney, said the favorable terms of Terry’s plea deal could lead others who are willing to accept responsibility to enter into similar agreements.
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“Let the games begin,” said Brickman, who once represented Willie Davenport, an APS defendant who died two months ago.
“This clearly shows the state’s willingness to engage in plea bargaining in an effort to seek the cooperation of co-defendants in this ongoing prosecution,” he said. “It also shows that the first to squeal gets the deal.”
Terry pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of obstruction and was sentenced to one year on probation and ordered to perform 250 hours of community service. Prosecutors dismissed felony charges of racketeering, theft by taking and making false statements and writings against her.
“The truth is finally out,” District Attorney Paul Howard said. “There was, in fact, ‘cheating going on’ in the Atlanta Public Schools system. Because of Ms. Terry’s willingness to stand up and accept responsibility for her conduct, the truth behind the Atlanta cheating scandal has been unveiled for all to see.”
Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter sentenced Terry under the First Offender Act, meaning if she abides by the terms of probation she can have her conviction removed.
In her plea agreement, Terry admitted she unlawfully received a bonus payment of $500 in 2009. She agreed to pay that back in restitution.
“I sincerely apologize for my actions and regret that I failed to uphold the ethics and standards of the teaching profession,” Terry wrote in a letter to Baxter, parents, students and all others concerned about the test-cheating scandal.
“As an educator with more than 19 years of experience serving the students of Atlanta Public Schools, I should have prioritized my values and the faith I had in my students over the pressure placed on me by Humphries Elementary School administrators,” Terry wrote. “While the pressure was constant, it does not justify my choice to violate the trust of the parents and students that I served or the law.”
A number of her students were at grade level and should have been given a fair opportunity to perform independently, she wrote.
“For those students who were below grade level, I should have had faith in our countless hours of classroom preparation and believed they were ready to take the test on their own. Through this experience, I have learned to always consider the full impact of my choices.”
Terry’s plea means there are now 33 former APS administrators and educators who stand indicted on charges they conspired to cheat on federally mandated standardized tests so they could receive bonus pay and so schools could meet academic standards. The trial is set for April.
Terry began working for APS in 1992 as a paraprofessional for special education students. She later received her teacher certificate for fourth through eighth grades and, in 2006, obtained a masters of counseling degree.
She transferred to Humphries Elementary as a fourth-grade teacher for the 2008-09 school year and instructed 17 students. According to her plea agreement, her former principal, Donald Clark Sr., who is not charged in the case, strongly pressured Terry to make sure her students’ CRCT scores were acceptable.
Terry said she was told there were no excuses for not making targets, and if her students’ scores didn’t improve, she would be out of a job, her plea agreement said. Because of those pressures and specific instructions, Terry said, “I participated in cheating.”