Former Atlanta schools Superintendent Beverly Hall was the leader of a corrupt organization that used students’ test scores to earn bonuses if they rose, or intimidation and termination if they fell, according to a 65-count indictment returned Friday.
Grand jurors have been meeting for months, sorting out the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, and on Friday they made clear their outrage at what they had been hearing by setting a bond of $7.5 million for Hall. She and the other 34 indicted — all for racketeering — have until Tuesday to surrender. They reached a decision after 45 minutes of deliberation.
“The whole purpose behind this is to vindicate the little children who got gypped out of an education,” said former Attorney General Michael Bowers, one of three investigators who produced the report that was the blueprint for the grand jury, and who was the final witness to testify before the grand jurors voted.
The indictment says Hall and the other 34 named “conspired” to make the school district look like it was more successful than it was.
“If a school achieved 70 percent or more of its targets, all employees at the school received a bonus,” the indictment said. “Additionally, if certain system-wide targets were achieved, Beverly Hall herself received a substantial bonus.”
Hall’s “targets” were often tougher than the state’s standards.
In a scathing report released in July 2011 that was the blueprint for the grand jurors, state investigators uncovered what they called a decade of systemic cheating in Atlanta Public Schools and concluded that Beverly Hall knew or should have known about it. Investigators named nearly 180 educators, including more than three dozen principals, as participants in cheating on state curriculum tests.
The report’s release culminated more than two years of inquiries into Atlanta’s huge gains on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 2009. An Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis first detected statistically improbable increases in test scores at one Atlanta school in 2008. The following year, the AJC published another analysis that found suspicious score changes on the 2009 CRCT at a dozen Atlanta schools. The newspaper’s reporting ultimately led to the state investigation.
District Attorney Paul Howard said Hall and her advisers didn’t have an open agreement to conduct a cheating conspiracy, but her actions made it possible.
“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, this conspiracy could not have taken place.”
According to the indictment, principals and teachers often were told that “excuses for not meeting targets would not be tolerated. When principals and teachers could not reach their targets, their performance was criticized, their jobs were threatened and some were terminated.”
To meet those targets, test answers were changed and falsely certified, according to the charges.
It was at the expense of students, District Attorney Paul Howard and one parent said at a news conference.
Justina Collins said she knew something was wrong when her daughter, in third grade at Cascade Elementary, scored poorly in reading but had exceptional scores on the standardized Criterion-Referenced Competency Test. She said school administrators told her that they couldn’t help her daughter improve her reading and that she simply did well on standardized tests.
“As a parent who wants the best for her child, I’m very disappointed,” said Collins, whose daughter is now in the ninth grade, but reads at a fifth-grade level. “She wasn’t where she needed to be. To try to help her catch up, I did the best I could as a parent with the resources that were at hand.”
There was only one count of racketeering, which carries up to 20 years in prison. But allegations of false statements and writings, influencing a witness, and theft by taking were the underlying crimes that supported the racketeering charge.
Out of 65 counts, one was racketeering, two were influencing a witness, five were theft by taking, and the remaining counts concerned the crime of making false statements or writings.
“Beverly Hall placed unreasonable emphasis on achieving targets; protected and rewarded those who achieved targets through cheating; terminated principals who failed to achieve targets; and ignored suspicious CRCT score gains,” the indictment said. “As a result, cheating became more and more prevalent within APS.”
The indictment says school system officials, principals and teachers lied and misled investigators and tried to stop them from looking into allegations.
“It was further part of the conspiracy and endeavor that Beverly Hall and other conspirators would interfere with, suppress and obstruct investigations into cheating,” the indictment said.
They would refuse to answer investigators’ questions, hide or deny the existence of reports of cheating and fail to do anything when APS investigators said cheating was occurring.
Also named in the indictment were Millicent Few, head of human resources; Tamara Cotman, area director; and Christopher Waller, principal of Parks Middle School, where seven educators confessed to cheating and five others were implicated.
“While these educators have not been found guilty of a crime, the indictments should serve as a warning that test security should continue to be a top priority for educators in every school,” said state School Superintendent John Barge. “No matter what happens in the courts, our children are the ones who will pay for the cloud cast by this cheating investigation. Now that this issue is in the hands of the district attorney, we will all be watching closely to see the outcome.”
Those indicted were:
Sharon Davis Williams
Tamara Cotman (Johnson)
Staff writer Nancy Badertscher contributed to this report.