State: Atlanta schools protect those who would intimidate whistleblowers

District accused of retaliating against those cooperating with cheating investigation

State investigators have uncovered what they call a pattern of “intimidating, threatening and retaliating” against Atlanta Public Schools employees who report cheating or other improprieties.

In a piercing letter Wednesday to the school system demanding a stop to obstructive practices, investigators suggested the district has acted “to protect those in its ranks who engage in intimidation of potential witnesses to cheating.”

The investigators said they found evidence the district has engaged in such practices for years. But even during the state’s current criminal inquiry into cheating on standardized tests, the investigators said, school officials have allowed principals under suspicion to stand just outside rooms where witnesses were giving statements, “with the obvious intent to make their presence known and to put a chilling effect on the staff member being interviewed.”

The investigators also complained that the district waited two months to reassign a high-level official accused of advising principals to not cooperate with the inquiry and instructing them to write “go to hell” memos to state agents. The delay, investigators said, gave the official time to retaliate against at least one subordinate. And the district suppressed information about its own inquiry into the official’s actions, investigators Mike Bowers, Bob Wilson and Richard Hyde said.

The investigators’ letter — first reported Thursday by Channel 2 Action News — stops barely short of accusing district officials of criminal violation of a state law that prohibits threatening witnesses.

Nevertheless, the letter raises the stakes in an already tense conflict between the district and the state investigators whose inquiry is casting doubts on the schools’ claims of long-term academic achievement.

The investigators told the district to drop plans, announced Monday, to look into excessive wrong-to-right erasures on the 2010 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test in 16 schools. The state investigation began last summer after then-Gov. Sonny Perdue and other state officials questioned the diligence of the district’s examination of suspicious erasures on the 2009 CRCT in 58 Atlanta elementary and middle schools.

“Any investigation by APS into alleged cheating on the 2010 CRCT, wrong-to-right erasures, possible test tampering and any related issues must cease and desist immediately,” Bowers, Wilson and Hyde wrote. “As we previously warned you, any such investigation by APS will invariably interfere with and impede the governor’s special investigation into possible test tampering. ...Any attempt by APS to interfere with our investigation or to conduct its own investigation would be seen as obstruction, an attempt to influence witnesses and tampering with evidence.”

Superintendent Beverly Hall, in a letter to a state education official Wednesday, denied the district plans to investigate the 2010 erasures but will only be “conducting an analysis.”

The state investigators did not respond to messages Thursday seeking interviews.

A school district spokesman, Keith Bromery, said in an e-mail: “We intend to continue to fully cooperate with the special investigation to get to the bottom of any wrongdoing. We have received the letter from the special investigators and are reviewing it and will provide them with a response.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month that the school district often punishes teachers and other employees who report wrongdoing while rewarding those who keep quiet. Some teachers have themselves been investigated after reporting that colleagues or supervisors cheated. Others have been subjected to questions about their mental health. Some have lost their jobs.

In Wednesday’s letter, state investigators suggested the district’s internal inquiries would get in their way by involving the same witnesses and the same documents. Further, the investigators wrote, the district might take disciplinary action against witnesses in a criminal case — which, they said, “could clearly result in the threatening of witnesses in an official proceeding.”

Under state law, they said, illegal threats involve not only those of physical harm, but of economic damage — such as the loss of a job or a demotion. Their concerns, the investigators wrote, “are not unwarranted.”

They said they found evidence that, at least since the early 2000s, the district engaged in “a pattern and practice” of punishing employees who reported cheating or questioned how administrators handled the CRCT. At least one principal had his lawyer ask teachers what they told state agents and whether they received immunity from prosecution, the investigators said.

The investigators also said they received information about Tamara Cotman, an area superintendent, who “intimidated” principals by having them write “go to hell” letters to state agents during a meeting. The AJC reported on the episode Sunday.

“Although Ms. Cotman’s conduct was reported directly to APS, APS took no action against Ms. Cotman for nearly two months, and then only after one of the attendees apparently went public with the story to the AJC,” the investigators wrote.

State investigators’ earlier warnings about internal inquiries should have been clear to the district’s administration, said Yolanda Johnson, a member of the Atlanta Board of Education. She said she was speaking as an individual, not on the board’s behalf.

Johnson had not seen the investigators’ letter. But after hearing the section detailing retaliation against employees, she said: “Wow. Obviously, that’s unacceptable.”

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