A 73-year-old principal, a middle school secretary, elementary school teachers, and other school workers are accused of being behind the nation's biggest cheating scandal.
Prosecutors are going after them under a racketeering law originally enacted to target the mafia, and they face prison time for allegedly changing students' test scores. Many of the teachers had bonds of $1 million or more that they had to argue to get lowered to six or five figures.
The scathing indictment of mostly black teachers has sparked allegations of racism from the Concerned Black Clergy and a prominent former mayor, The New York Times has reported. Rev. Timothy McDonald, a spokesman for Concerned Black Clergy, called the indictment "overkill" at best.
“Look at the pictures of those 35,” he told the Times. “Show me a white face. Let’s just be for real. You can call it racist, you can call it whatever you want, but this is overkill. We have seen people with much deeper crimes with much less bond set.”
It's clear prosecutors meant to send a strong message by arresting so many teachers after a sting operation that enlisted at least one third-grade teacher to wear a wire.
Teachers and principals are being accused of systematically and brazenly changing students' standardized test scores for possibly as long as a decade. These scores spiked when ex-superintendent Beverly Hall ran the school between 1999 and 2010, causing state regulators to become suspicious and start investigating the mostly minority district.
Hall, whose name appears at the top of the indictment, could go to prison for 45 years. She previously had a stellar reputation, and her lawyer Richard Deane told The New York Times that "not a single person" has alleged she helped them cheat.
The indictment says Hall placed "unreasonable emphasis" on meeting test targets and ignored signs of rampant cheating while handing out bonuses to staff at schools with high scores. A potential 45-year prison term for Hall certainly seems harsh over such allegations.
Throwing a lot of educators into jail with pretty big bail seems harsh too, especially since the bonuses they allegedly colluded to get reportedly ranged from just $750 to $1,000.
Former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Jackson, like the Concerned Black Clergy, has rushed to the teachers' defense and accused the media of unfairly skewering them.
"Yes cheating is awful," she writes on her blog. "And so is conviction before a fair trial. I believe every accused person deserves a fair trial under a set of laws that promises to be just and balanced. I don’t support public hangings. It is barbaric."
Jackson added, "Prosecutors, judges and jurors make mistakes and overreach."
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