Tamara Cotman, center,  holds hands with supporters as she walks to the Fulton County Jail Tuesday. Cotman, convicted in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, will begin serving her prison sentence after her appeals ran out.

With hymns and prayers, ex-APS educator reports for prison in cheating scandal

After phony test scores and cover-ups, convictions and failed appeals, one chapter of the decade-long Atlanta Public Schools cheating saga ended with a hymn and prayers.

Two former Atlanta educators turned themselves in to authorities Tuesday, becoming the first to report for prison for their parts in a district-wide conspiracy that ruined reputations and wrecked some students’ education.

Tamara Cotman and Angela Williamson are among 11 former APS employees convicted of racketeering in 2015 in a case that involved teachers and administrators changing students’ answers on tests and receiving bonuses and raises based on the bogus results.

Cotman and Williamson spent the past three and a half years fighting their convictions. But last week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would not review their case, exhausting their last legal option.

“I was wrongly convicted, and today I will be sent to prison wrongly,” said Cotman at a news conference Tuesday morning outside the Fulton County Courthouse.

Hours later, wearing the same knee-length dress and with her fuchsia lipstick still intact, she grasped supporters’ hands and walked across a parking lot and into the Fulton County Jail to begin her three-year sentence.

The group paused outside the jailhouse doors to pray and then sing a hymn.

“Tamara needs you Lord, come by here,” they sang. “We’re standing for justice, Lord, come by here.”

Tamara Cotman, who was convicted in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating case, reacts as she turns herself in at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta on Tuesday, October 9, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Earlier, away from the spotlight of cameras, Williamson reported to the jail for her two-year sentence. It could take a week or even a month before they are transferred from the county jail to a state prison.

Both had remained free on bond during their appeals.

Prosecutors have said Cotman, who worked as a school reform team executive director, failed to report cheating complaints and punished those who reported concerns. When state investigators launched a probe, Cotman reportedly told principals to write “go to hell” notes to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Williamson taught at Dobbs Elementary, where former coworkers testified she taught them how to cheat. In addition to racketeering, she also was found guilty of four counts of false statements and writings and false swearing.

About 20 supporters joined Cotman at the 50-minute news conference. She remained stoic, wavering with emotion only occasionally, as she professed her innocence.

Cotman acknowledged “there were cases of cheating” in APS, but said she dealt with them.

“In my region there were over 1,200 teachers and three — one, two, three — were charged. They took their plea deals, never implicated me and yet I am going to prison for racketeering,” she said.

Her allies called on Judge Jerry Baxter to re-evaluate his sentence and for Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, Jr. to take a second look.

“What was it all for? I pray that Paul Howard, you don’t want to leave this as your legacy. Judge Baxter you do not want to leave this as your legacy. It should haunt you for the rest of your days,” said the Rev. Timothy McDonald, former president of the Concerned Black Clergy of Metro Atlanta.

Tamara Cotman (center) listens as the Rev. Timothy McDonald (foreground) speaks to members of the press before she turns herself in outside the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta on Tuesday, October 9, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Supporters described the prison sentence as “retribution,” not punishment.

“We have gone to the ultimate extreme of incarceration of educators. That should not happen in America,” McDonald said.

Howard, through a spokesman, declined to comment. Judge Baxter could not be reached for comment.

Researchers found that the cheating affected thousands of students. The district still provides extra support, including tutors, to 913 students who likely were cheated. The final class of cheated students will graduate in 2021.

Those cheated fell behind in reading and English language arts. Bogus test scores obscured their academic struggles, and some students were passed on to the next grade when they weren’t ready.

Judge Baxter imposed stiff sentences in 2015, saying at the time: “Everyone starts crying about these educators. There were thousands of children harmed in this thing. This is not a victimless crime.”

He later cut in half the original prison sentence for some of the defendants, including Cotman, saying then: “I want it to be considered something fair.”

Those convicted had the chance to lighten their sentence by admitting guilt after the verdict, but only two of the 11 did so, a decision that gave one of them weekend jail time but kept both out of prison.

The cheating was exposed after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution began reporting in 2008 about suspiciously high scores on standardized tests. A state investigation followed. It confirmed cheating in 44 schools and named 178 educators as participants. More than 80 confessed.

Thirty-five educators were indicted, and 21 pleaded guilty to lesser charges. Former APS Superintendent Beverly Hall died before going to trial, as did one other defendant.

Eleven of the 12 who went to trial — the longest criminal trial in Georgia history — were found guilty.

Of the nine who appealed, Cotman and Williamson were the only two who went directly to the Georgia Court of Appeals.

The remaining seven plan to seek a new trial in Fulton County Superior Court and have remained free on bond. Prosecutors asked the court last week to dismiss that request for a new trial.

Cotman called Tuesday “the most challenging day of my life,” except the day she was sentenced.

Later, she stepped through the jail doors and walked through security. Behind her, as a rainy day gave way to mid-day sun, her supporters huddled one last time to pray together.

>> Read a timeline of how the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal played out

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