Trial witness: APS took pains to hide evidence of cheating

Atlanta Public Schools officials took extraordinary steps to cloak information gathered during an internal investigation into alleged cheating on standardized tests, a witness testified Monday in the APS trial.

Colinda Howard, former head of the APS Office of Internal Resolution, said some school district leaders exchanged personal email addresses with one another so they could share information about the 2009 investigation without concern that those writings would become public.

Howard also said district officials were worried that the investigator’s reports would be made public before any negative findings were removed. So the investigator was told to label all versions of the report as “drafts,” which would shield them from the media under the Georgia Open Records Act.

Howard took the stand on Day 53 of the APS cheating trial being held in Fulton County Superior Court. Twelve defendants are fighting charges that they engaged in a racketeering conspiracy to inflate test scores.

According to Monday’s testimony, the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement told APS it suspected cheating had occurred at Deerwood Academy during a summer 2008 makeup session of the fifth-grade Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

APS responded by hiring attorney Penn Payne to investigate for the district.

Prosecutors showed the jury several emails dated mid-July 2009 in which Payne and Howard discussed records and information that were needed for the probe.

“A report had not been turned over to Dr. Hall?” prosecutor Clint Rucker asked, referring to Atlanta’s then-superintendent Beverly Hall.

“True,” Howard replied.

Yet long before Payne had finished her work, Hall wrote the state that a thorough APS investigation had found no cheating. Hall’s letter was dated July 6, 2009, according to testimony.

Howard said her boss Millicent Few, who was executive director of human resources, eventually ordered her to shred the file on the Deerwood investigation, as well as all of Payne’s drafts. The decision to shred was made because Payne had written in an initial version that it was “highly likely” there had been cheating on the Deerwood makeup exam, according to testimony.

Soon after that, Howard quit APS, leaving for a doctor’s appointment one day and never returning.

Howard said she was the subject of a sexual harassment investigation and she feared Few would use that as a hammer to get her to do things she did not want to do, such as destroy documents.

Few herself was a pivotal prosecution witness last week. In dramatic testimony Thursday, Few said Hall had ordered staff to shred a critical internal investigation into cheating. She also said Hall told staffers to falsify documents and keep information away from the public.

On Monday, Few was cross-examined by defense attorneys, who questioned her about procedures for disciplining district employees and asked about the circumstances surrounding the decision to shred documents. But in contrast to Thursday, most of the exchange was non-eventful.

Non-eventful, that is, until a defense attorney asked Few why she pleaded guilty a year ago to a reduced charge in the cheating case, which got her a sentence of 12 months’ probation. At the time of her plea, Few faced the possibility of 20 years in prison if she went on trial and was convicted of racketeering.

The defense attorney asked Few if she had agreed to plea after Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter told defendants he would punish them harshly if they went to trial and lost.

“Hey!” Judge Baxter exploded, “Interjecting me into this is not going to be allowed.” Baxter then threatened to jail any defense lawyers who asked similar questions during the remainder of the trial.

Also on Monday, former Atlanta schools superintendent Erroll Davis took the stand. Davis, who was the APS interim boss for three years after Hall retired in disgrace, testified about changes he put into place following the criminal scandal.

“I’m not sure what Mr. Davis’ remedial action has to do with this trial,” defense attorney Bob Rubin complained.