Atlanta Public Schools cheating: Some teachers admit guilt

Numerous Atlanta Public Schools employees have confessed to changing students’ test papers, providing answers to students or watching others manipulate tests, according to an official briefed on the state’s investigation into cheating on standardized tests.

The official, who was not authorized to discuss the investigation and spoke on the condition of anonymity, said some teachers are telling investigators, “I’m guilty. Here’s what I did. Here’s what I know happened.”

The revelation comes as criminal charges against APS employees appear increasingly likely as a result of the state’s investigation. GBI director Vernon Keenan and two special investigators on Monday met with Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard.

A spokeswoman for Howard confirmed the meeting took place but declined to comment further. Luz Tellez, the spokeswoman, said an announcement is expected today. Keenan and the investigators — former Attorney General Michael Bowers and DeKalb County District Attorney Bob Wilson — also declined to discuss the meeting.

But one possibility is that Howard would deputize Bowers and Wilson as special assistant district attorneys, said defense attorney Don Samuel. That would elevate their status to state prosecutor, giving them the ability to present evidence of possible wrongdoing by school officials to a Fulton grand jury.

At the moment, none of the three investigators has the power to turn their findings into criminal cases, even though two of them — Bowers and Wilson — are lawyers.

“Obviously, this means it’s moving forward,” Samuel said.

Bowers, speaking for the investigators, declined Monday to comment on any possible confessions.

GBI officials have said teachers are not targets for criminal charges as long as they are truthful with agents and investigators. But administrators may be.

Potential felony charges that educators could face include lying to agents or investigators, which could bring up to five years in prison, and the destruction or altering of public documents, which could result in up to 10 years in prison.

Atlanta district spokesman Keith Bromery said, “We are fully cooperating with this investigation, wherever it may lead,” but declined to comment further.

The official who spoke with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did not know how many school system employees have confessed or provided evidence against superiors.

It is unlikely, the official said, that the number has exceeded the 108 Atlanta educators that were referred to the state Professional Standards Commission for possible disciplinary action last August.

In August, Gov. Sonny Perdue named Bowers and Wilson as special investigators to determine whether Atlanta and also Dougherty County school officials falsified scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.

Stories in the AJC in 2008 and 2009 revealed some Atlanta public schools were posting statistically unbelievable scores on state CRCT. In February, state officials announced they had found suspicious erasures on answer sheets for last year’s tests in hundreds of classrooms at Atlanta elementary and middle schools.

The state ordered the district to investigate 58 of its schools, more than any other district statewide flagged by the erasure analysis. But the district’s probe — conducted by a “blue ribbon commission” composed of civic and business leaders — was rejected by Gov. Sonny Perdue in August as inadequate.

In appointing his special investigators, Perdue gave Bowers and Wilson and private investigator Richard Hyde subpoena power to reinvestigate the possibility of widespread cheating in Atlanta classes.

In mid-October, 50 of the GBI’s 240 agents fanned out across the Atlanta school system and began interviews with teachers and other administrators. GBI agents are continuing to assist in the investigation.

Some teachers’ representatives have complained about the GBI’s approach in questioning educators.

“It’s very intimidating for teachers,” said Michael McGonigle, director of legal services for the educators’ advocacy group the Georgia Association of Educators. “They really do feel badgered and bullied.”

APS Superintendent Beverly Hall, who has announced plans to leave when her contract expires in June, issued a memo to all employees earlier this year instructing them to cooperate with the state investigation. She had not given similar orders during the blue ribbon commission’s investigation.

Contact reporters Heather Vogell at hvogell@ajc.com, Alan Judd at ajudd@ajc.com and Bill Rankin at brankin@ajc.com.

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