Eleven Atlanta educators were found guilty April 1, 2015, of falsifying documents and changing students’ exam answers to improve test scores. 
NBC NIGHTLY NEWS SCREENSHOT

The Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal is almost over. A scandal that began in 2008 with reports of unusually high scores on mandatory standardized tests has come to a close with a sentencing hearing that looked more like the theater of the absurd than a meeting to determine sentences for those involved in a cheating scandal.

This sentencing has been a long time coming. The 2008 reports were followed by a 2009 state investigation that found “overwhelming” evidence of cheating at several APS schools, which led to a 2010 bipartisan blue-ribbon commission that found “moderate” levels of cheating at several schools. That resulted in a 2011 investigation by the governor’s office that unearthed widespread cheating and, in 2013, resulted in criminal indictments against 35 APS employees, including then-Superintendent Beverly Hall.

The educators were indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which refers to the prosecution and defense of individuals who engage in organized crime. In 1970 Congress passed the RICO Act in an effort to combat Mafia groups. APS educators were arrested under the same law used to indict John Gotti and Paul Castellano—former bosses of the Gambino crime family—and Anthony Corallo, former boss of the Lucchese crime family. 

The APS scandal made national headlines because of the scope of the cheating and the use of the RICO Act against a group of educators, which many felt was an overreach. The indictments led to 21 plea deals—which included a mix of probation, fines and community service—and 12 defendants were ordered to trial. Only one defendant, Dessa Curb, was acquitted of all charges against her. Hall, who was too ill to stand trial, passed away in March of cancer.

After being convicted on April 1 and led out of court in handcuffs, two of the defendants who stood trial, Donald Bullock and Pamela Cleveland, accepted plea deals with some confinement (house arrest and weekend jail), a $1,000 fine and community service, while the others, who refused the plea deal, were sentenced to five to 20 years. They also received fines ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 and community service ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 hours.

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The three top administrators—Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts—received the stiffest sentences. Each of them received a 20-year sentence and is expected to serve seven years in prison and 13 on probation, as well as pay $25,000 in fines and do 2,000 hours of community service. Another defendant, who just gave birth to a child, will be sentenced in August.

Folks have been engaged in heated discussions online and offline about the trial, with some saying that the convicted educators got what they deserved, and others noting the overzealous prosecution of the defendants—who are all African American—and the copious amount of attention being paid to the educators as opposed to the students affected by their cheating.

I fall somewhere in between, wholeheartedly agreeing that the educators who were convicted of cheating should be punished, but recoiling at the use of the RICO Act to charge and convict them. As an educator, I find it hard to support prosecuting educators under a law devised to protect citizens against the Mafia, a law that seems to have become a catchall for cases that are not easily proved.

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Cheating students out of an education is criminal but not “mafioso criminal.” The fact that many of the defendants were denied first-offender status is as problematic as being indicted under the same act as the late John Gotti. My displeasure with the sentence also has to do with the racial dynamics on full display in the courtroom during the sentencing hearing.

It is impossible to deny that Judge Jerry Baxter, who is white, had a tough task in front of him. Determining sentences for many highly educated, formerly upstanding members of the community has to be difficult. Educators shouldn’t get a break because they are educated, any more than the child of a judge should get a break because he or she has a parent who is part of the justice system. But we all know that breaks are given. We also know that blacks of any social stratum are more likely to be convicted and also likely to be punished more harshly than their white counterparts for committing similar crimes.

Baxter’s belligerent behavior didn’t do much to dispel these facts. If he wasn’t attempting to completely silence the defense attorneys, all of them black, he was talking over them. He threatened to repeal the appellate bond that had been offered when some of the defendants didn’t take the plea deal, and threatened jail time for one attorney who was trying to defend the right of his client to reject the plea deal and not to have the appellate bond withdrawn. He and other defense attorneys argued that they had advised their clients based on that bond, and if Judge Baxter rescinded the offer, then it would compromise the accuracy of that advice.

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As I watched the sentencing, I was sickened by the display of theatrics by this judge, who was yelling at the defense attorneys–-even those accepting the plea—never mind the defendants. Was he yelling because he was tired and frustrated? Probably. Was he yelling and obstructing the defendants’ right to a solid defense because they’re black? Maybe. Something disturbing was happening in that courtroom, and it wasn’t cool.

I do not believe that using RICO to charge these educators and sentencing some to 20 years in prison does anything to help the children hurt by the cheating. I am also perplexed by this sudden concern for students coming from many people who have long known that our students are not getting the educational training that they deserve.

If we really cared about the children, wouldn’t we be more mindful of class size, resources, teacher qualifications, national ranking and policies like “No Child Left Behind” that handcuff teachers and administrators to standardized test scores that don’t measure much of anything useful? There’s a reason that Ivy League institutions are moving away from using standardized testing as a requirement for admission. With this APS scandal, we now have a concrete example of why this type of measurement, which is also used for promotion and merit-based raises, is troublesome. 

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The state of the educational climate, including at APS, suggests that we don’t care very much about the children unless there’s a cheating scandal, and then folks are clutching their pearls and singing Negro spirituals. That isn’t cool, either. The quality of the education that our children receive should matter all the time, not just when there’s a scandal involved.

Isn’t it just as scandalous to knowingly provide what many would call a subpar education to many of our students in public school while many parents drive past those schools to drop off their kids at private schools? Hopefully this case will evolve beyond the cheating scandal into a more comprehensive look at how best to serve all of our students without holding teachers hostage in the process.

The APS cheating scandal is more than a clear-cut case of cheating—it’s about due process and long-standing issues within the educational and criminal-justice systems that will not magically disappear if educators are treated like mob bosses.

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Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.