APS cheating film premieres in Atlanta with Reed as panelist

Former Mayor Kasim Reed said he made the right choice by not trying to take control of Atlanta Public Schools after a major cheating scandal threatened the district.

Reed recalled the tumultuous time at the BronzeLens Film Festival, where the documentary film "One Child Left Behind: The Untold Atlanta Cheating Scandal" made its Atlanta premiere Sunday. He told the movie audience that as the scandal unfolded, he could see a "Titanic clash" brewing between Beverly Hall, who at the time was APS superintendent, and then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.

But, Reed said, he made the “right call” by not trying to wrestle control away from the elected Atlanta school board.

“I think that in a crisis you have an enormous amount of influence. I mean, when we were going through the cheating scandal, folks wanted me to try to take control of the system. I declined to do that because I didn’t think that that was appropriate, to strip power from the school board because of this crisis,” he said.

Although he doesn’t appear in the film, Reed spoke as a panelist during a more than 30-minute discussion after the screening of the film at the Southwest Arts Center.

The film, which was directed by Jodi Gomes and includes interviews with several former APS educators, questions the role that politics and the pressures of standardized testing had on cheating and the criminal prosecution.

“It’s a cautionary tale about what can happen when high-stakes testing runs amok or goes awry in the disadvantaged schools. Atlanta was just basically, I think, a pawn in a bigger conversation that has to be had,” Gomes said.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution first reported on suspicious scores on state standardized tests in 2008. When state investigators later did their own report, they named 178 educators as participants in cheating. More than 80 confessed, according to the report, and investigators said they confirmed cheating in dozens of schools where students' wrong test answers were erased and corrected.

Thirty-five educators were indicted, and many pleaded guilty to lesser charges.

Twelve went to trial; all but one was found guilty of racketeering.

The prosecution argued educators corrected students’ answers on tests, and the bogus test scores led to bonuses and pay raises, or allowed them to keep their jobs.

Even though the jury announced guilty verdicts in 2015, the appeals battle is ongoing for seven of those who were convicted.

Dana Evans, the former principal at Dobbs Elementary School, is among those asking for a new trial. She maintains her innocence.

She joined Sunday’s panel discussion alongside Reed, Gomes, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten and attorney LaDawn Jones, who also serves as the film’s co-executive producer.

Evans said she agreed to be interviewed for the film because she wanted to correct the “distorted” picture that people have of what happened in APS.

“I don’t believe Georgia will give me a fair trial ever. We are fighting an appeal, and I don’t believe it will be fair. So I have to just, with whatever voice I have left, until they imprison me and even after that, I still have to be fighting for what we need to do as a people to come together,” she said.