Atlanta educator prevails in tribunal

Now Angela Williamson, formerly of Dobbs Elementary School, awaits a decision from the Atlanta school board on the status of her employment. The board can follow the superintendent's recommendation to terminate her or vote to reinstate her.

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis has said previously any educator exonerated during a tribunal would be reinstated.

According to a state investigation, in 2008 and 2009 Williamson was accused of prompting students during the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests to change their answers from wrong to right by coughing, frowning and telling them to "go back over your answers."

"I knew all along that I was innocent," a tearful Williamson, 45, said Saturday. "This was a draining process. Now I can get my life back."

Her lawyer, Gerald Griggs, said they will consider suing the school district now to clear her name.

"This sent a message that APS needs to look at its own policies before blaming the teachers," Griggs said.

APS spokesman Keith Bromery wouldn't comment on the potential lawsuit.

"We take these a case at a time," Bromery said. "We would not bring a case of termination unless we felt there was due cause."

Around 180 Atlanta educators were accused by state investigators of cheating on the CRCT in 2009. So far, nine educators have had their terminations upheld at disciplinary hearings. The school board has affirmed all those decisions.

Several educators, who were placed on paid administrative leave last year, have either resigned or retired.

State investigator Leigh Brooks testified Saturday that Williamson confessed to prompting students to change their answers in an interview with her lawyer, after she signed a form exempting her from criminal prosecution. But, unlike prior trials, Brooks nor APS lawyer Nina Gupta played the confession to the tribunal.

Gupta, noting she "wish she had the tape," said Williamson's way of cheating was "a bit more subtle."

“She wouldn’t say anything if they [students] got something right. But if they got something wrong, she would tell them to ‘look at that again,’” Gupta said.

During the three-hour trial, Griggs argued Williamson was repeatedly trained by APS administrators to walk back and forth through the aisles during testing, and tell students who were distracted or putting their heads down to go back over their answers and check their work.

"I never knew that was cheating," Williamson said.

In 2008 and 2009, Brooks said Williamson's students erased an extremely high amount of wrong answers and changed them to right answers on standardized tests.

"Our argument is not that these scores weren’t inflated," Griggs said. "Our argument is that Angela Williamson had nothing to do with it. It’s impossible for her to have hovered over each child and give the correct answers for a test she didn’t know the answers to."

Dobbs' principal at the time, Janice Kelsey, has since retired. Last month, a tribunal upheld the firing of Derrick Broadwater, also a teacher at Dobbs Elementary for helping students with words they didn’t know and prompting them to recheck answers if he suspected something was incorrect. Broadwater didn't show up to his hearing where a tape of his confession was played to the tribunal.

Saturday morning, Williamson dressed in a navy blue suit and starched white blouse, crossed her arms, looked tribunal members in the eyes and said she never cheated or prompted her students to change their answers.

"I want you to see that I’m not the person they are portraying me to be," Williamson said. "I’m a good teacher. I’ve always been a good teacher. And I always will be a good teacher."

Half a dozen of her siblings, a minister and a farmer from her hometown of Ailey showed up in support and testified to her "honest" and "compassionate" character. Griggs emphasized her clean record of 15 years of teaching.

Tribunal members debated for less than 30 minutes before telling Judge A.J. Buddy Welch their decision and quickly leaving the APS administration building.

After Welch announced the tribunal's decision, Williamson wrapped her arms around Griggs.

"I told you you'd be alright," Griggs whispered in her ear.

Where they stand now

About 89 educators of 178 suspected of cheating remain on the Atlanta Public Schools district's payroll, including teachers and administrators. They can make their case to keep their jobs before an APS tribunal. Once the hearings are held and terminations are recommended, the matter goes to the school board for approval. If the board upholds the decision, the employee is terminated immediately.

Where the cases stand

1 -- Number of educators whose recommended firing was not upheld by a tribunal.

9 -- Number of educators whose recommended firing has been upheld by a tribunal.

50 -- Number of letters sent to educators outlining charges and the school district's intent to terminate.

78 -- Number of educators notified that their contracts will not be renewed; some will have the option of a hearing.

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