Full coverage of the Atlanta schools cheating trial verdict. The supposed transformation of Atlanta Public Schools overseen by former Superintendent Beverly Hall resulted from a criminal enterprise that victimized thousands of struggling students for years, authorities alleged Friday.
Capping a series of investigations that spanned four years, a Fulton County grand jury indicted Hall and 34 others on charges that they conspired to cheat on federally mandated standardized tests from at least 2005 to 2010. Further, the grand jury charged, Hall, several top aides, principals and teachers engaged in the scheme for their own financial gain. And with investigators closing in, the jury said, Hall and others lied to cover up their crimes.
Hall inculcated an atmosphere that encouraged using any means necessary to achieve test-score targets, the indictment said, and then “publicly misrepresented the academic performance of schools throughout APS.” Pressuring subordinates to produce targeted scores, the indictment said, “created an environment where achieving the desired end result was more important than the students’ education.”
“This is nothing but pervasive and rank thuggery,” said Richard Hyde, one of the special investigators appointed in 2010 by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue to delve into what has become the largest academic cheating scandal in U.S. history.
The indictment served as a resounding refutation of Hall’s assertions that Atlanta had found the secret formula that had long eluded educators elsewhere: how to get strong performances from poor, mostly minority students in decaying urban schools. For her efforts, Hall was named the national superintendent of the year in 2009.
Now Hall, 66, faces as much as 45 years in prison. Grand jurors recommended that a judge set her bond at $7.5 million. Authorities gave all the defendants until Tuesday to surrender.
Along with Hall, the grand jury indicted four other former top administrators: Millicent Few, who ran the district’s human resources division, and area supervisors Sharon Davis-Williams, Tamara Cotman and Michael Pitts.
Lawyers for most of the defendants denied the charges and promised to fight in court. Hall’s lawyers, Richard Deane and David Bailey, said in a statement that the former superintendent had no involvement in cheating on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test or “any other wrongdoing.”
“Not a single person,” they said, “reported that Dr. Hall participated in or directed them to cheat on the CRCT.”
The indictment charged Hall and the others with racketeering, theft, making false statements and false swearing. Others named included seven principals, two assistant principals, 14 teachers, five testing coordinators, one instructional coach and even a school secretary. Authorities accused some educators of influencing witnesses by pressuring them to lie to investigators about cheating.
The grand jurors filed the indictment just before 5 p.m. Friday after hearing from witnesses since Wednesday. District Attorney Paul Howard, whose office spent 21 months on the case, capped off the day with a somber news conference, broadcast live on Atlanta television stations, in which he lamented “the crimes that have been committed against the children of the city of Atlanta.”
Beyond the criminal acts it alleged, the indictment revealed the human toll exacted by years of test-score manipulation, first reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2008.
When a teacher at C.W. Hill Elementary complained about cheating by a colleague in 2005, Hall suspended the accused educator for 20 days. As for the whistle-blower, Hall fired her.
Hall repeatedly ignored or disregarded reports of cheating or other questions about test scores. In 2006, Howard said, Atlanta resident Justina Collins was concerned when her daughter received the lowest score on a benchmark examination in her third-grade reading class — but then, somehow, exceeded reading standards on the CRCT.
Collins managed to get an appointment with Hall, who told her there was no evidence her daughter needed help. She had, after all, done well on the CRCT. “Your daughter is the kind of person who tests well,” Collins said she was told.
Now in the ninth grade, her daughter reads at a fifth-grade level.
Not long after she became Atlanta’s superintendent in 1999, Hall established increasingly tough performance targets for every school that would become progressively more difficult to hit. Her mantra: “No exceptions and no excuses.”
Hall told principals and teachers that falling short was not acceptable. “Their performance was criticized,” the indictment said, “their jobs were threatened, and some were terminated.”
When she told one principal in 2005 that his contract was not being renewed, Hall reportedly said it was because she was “not interested in incremental gains.”
For those who met Hall’s mandates, however, rewards followed — public praise and financial bonuses alike.
Those bonuses are at the heart of the theft charges against Hall and others.
If a school met 70 percent of its annual targets, every employee received a bonus, as low as a few hundred dollars and as high as $1,000 or more.
Moreover, Hall’s annual bonuses depended largely on test scores, the indictment said. Grand jurors specifically accused Hall of qualifying for bonuses in 2007, 2008 and 2009 by certifying test scores “which she knew were false.”
Hall collected bonuses totaling more than $225,000 for those years, on top of a base salary that, by 2009, exceeded $300,000. Altogether, she received bonuses of about $580,000 over 10 years.
Beginning in 2006, according to the indictment, Hall was getting numerous reports about cheating and other irregularities at Parks Middle School, most involving principal Christopher Waller. Staff members had complained that Waller was falsifying student attendance records, among other documents; had sexually harassed women who worked for him; and had pressured teachers to change students’ answers on the CRCT.
A private detective hired by the district reported to Hall in writing and in person, the indictment said, telling her that Waller had “coerced teachers to cheat” and “was threatening and intimidating teachers not to reveal information” about the allegations against him.
Nevertheless, Hall took no action against Waller, whom she had publicly lauded for rapidly boosting Parks’ test scores. And, the indictment said, the allegations didn’t stop her from approving bonuses for Waller and others at the school.
But when investigators asked her about Waller in 2011, the indictment said, Hall denied receiving complaints involving the principal or meeting with the detective — willful lies, the grand jury alleged.
The allegations concerning Parks illustrate several facets of the racketeering case that prosecutors presented to the grand jury.
The conspiracy began when numerous defendants pressured other educators to cheat on the CRCT, the indictment said.
Then, if anyone complained about test manipulation, Hall and others would “interfere with, suppress and obstruct investigations,” according to the indictment. In some instances, grand jurors said, Hall and others refused to investigate cheating reports at all, while in others, they suppressed critical findings by their own investigators.
Finally, the indictment said, Hall and others lied about the cheating cases to state investigators and withheld documents from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney’s office.
The indictment offers no evidence that Hall or anyone else laid out a specific scheme for the cheating or the cover-up. Such an agreement is not necessary to establish a conspiracy, said Howard, the district attorney.
“Because there is a single-minded purpose, and that purpose is to cheat to manipulate the grades, what we are alleging is that she was a full participant in that conspiracy,” Howard said. “Without her, the conspiracy could not have taken place.”
Secrecy was key to the alleged conspiracy, the grand jury said.
The indictment describes numerous instances in which district officials withheld documents requested by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution under the state Open Records Act. It also says Hall gave false information to a state official about the district’s investigation of cheating allegations at one school.
Hall and her administrators routinely tamped down cheating allegations, the indictment said, often by simply taking no action. In August 2009, the state Education Department forwarded an anonymous letter to Hall and Few that claimed “retaliation runs rampant” in the district. State officials asked Hall and Few to investigate. Instead, the indictment said, they ignored it.
Hall even lied to groups that supported the district’s efforts to improve performance, the indictment said.
In 2007, it said, Hall met with a representative of the Annie E. Casey Foundation about the organization’s interest in working with Waller at Parks Middle School. Hall said nothing about the multiple complaints about cheating and other improprieties, the indictment said, and allowed the foundation to supplement Waller’s salary.
Later the same year, the indictment said, Hall was interviewed for an article in a Casey foundation publication. Again, the indictment said, she said nothing about irregularities involving Parks, but instead “praised Waller for his leadership.”
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Staff writers Wayne Washington, Jeffry Scott, Jaime Sarrio, Nancy Badertscher, Ty Tagami, Lois Norder, James Pelfrey and Leroy Chapman contributed to this story.