Whistle-blower revealed in cheating case

The former principal at North Atlanta High School revealed in court Tuesday he was the one who exposed how an Atlanta Public Schools administrator allegedly planned to tell investigators looking into cheating to “go to hell.”

Mark MyGrant took the stand for the prosecution in the trial of former regional schools director Tamara Cotman, who’s accused of influencing a witness during the investigation of widespread cheating in the school system.

Prosecutors claim Cotman retaliated and demoted another principal, Jimmye Hawkins, who Cotman thought blew the whistle. But MyGrant said he reported that Cotman instructed principals to snub GBI agents who were looking into suspiciously high standardized test scores.

Cotman handed out memos with the heading “Go to Hell” during a meeting with 12 principals whose schools were being investigated, and she directed each principal to write a memo to the GBI, prosecutors allege.

MyGrant said he wasn’t at that Nov. 17, 2010, meeting but Hawkins and two other principals who were there told him about what allegedly occurred.

“I thought it was the right thing to do ethically, professionally,” MyGrant said. “I had concerns about the legality of it.”

MyGrant said he sent his letter to then-Superintendent Beverly Hall, her chief of staff and members of the school board. He said he didn’t sign his name because he feared retaliation and losing his job when he was one year away from retirement.

After receiving the letter, Atlanta Public Schools hired a law firm to investigate the “go to hell” meeting, which frustrated state investigators who had told the school system not to interfere. One of the state investigators, Bob Wilson, testified in court Tuesday he demanded that APS stop its inquiry because it would have a “chilling effect” on potential witnesses.

Cotman is the first of 35 former educators to go to trial on charges related to changing answers on standardized tests.

She has denied trying to wrongly influence Hawkins. In a 2011 interview with the governor’s special investigators, Cotman also denied instructing the 12 principals at the meeting to write such memos to investigators. Hawkins wasn’t accused of test-tampering in the state investigative report, which concluded that 185 administrators and teachers participated in cheating.

In his anonymous letter, MyGrant reminded top APS executives that the school system had called on all employees to cooperate fully with the state inquiry.

“Is this the spirit of cooperation that Dr. Hall is expecting from her leaders, or just another example of a toxic culture that filters down to the schools by executive directors?” he wrote. “Should principals be pulled out of their schools to participate in these intimidating practices?”

Mygrant acknowledged he was given immunity by the GBI, but said he had committed no wrongdoing.

“I felt like an honest accountant working for Enron,” he testified.

MyGrant and five other administrators were removed at North Atlanta High by Superintendent Erroll Davis last fall. Davis said at the time that the school’s academic performance led to their dismissals. An internal APS investigation of North Atlanta is expected to be completed soon.

In Wilson’s testimony, he said leaders of Atlanta Public Schools withheld information, refused to cooperate and scared educators so much that they wouldn’t talk.

“The whole reason the ‘go to hell’ meeting was held was because of the investigation into cheating,” Wilson said.

Wilson said Hawkins’ removal as principal of Scott Elementary School was “highly suspicious.”

“It was very clear there was tremendous pressure on these teachers, and just as there was pressure for them to cheat, there was a pressure for them to remain silent. Those who spoke up got punished,” Wilson said.

A third witness, former teacher’s assistant Tonette Hunter, said Cotman told her to keep quiet about cheating or else.

Hunter, a paraprofessional at Scott Elementary, said Principal Roxianne Smith gathered her and other teaching assistants and told them how to give away answers on the 2007 Criterion-Referenced Competency Test.

“She said you don’t even got to say nothing. You can just point,” Hunter said.

When Hunter asked to talk with Cotman about cheating, Hunter thought Cotman would help. Instead, Hunter was told to mind her own business, she said.

“The final word from Ms. Cotman to me was shut up or I will lose my job,” said Hunter, who worked with kindergartners and first graders.

Hunter was later fired for tardiness and absenteeism, but she said the real reason for her ouster was that she had come forward about cheating.

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