Trial Begins in Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal

The trial of 12 defendants in the longstanding Atlanta Public Schools’ (APS) test cheating case finally began Monday.  Bill Rankin, reporting for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, calls the scene logistically overwhelming, as the 12 defendants have their own defense team to combat the six-member prosecution team, 400 prospective jurors, and at least three months required for the entire trial.

Missing in court is the lead defendant, Superintendent Beverly Hall, who is either the alleged primary instigator of the cheating, or, as she claims, is the victim of prosecutorial harassment.  Hall is hospitalized for Stage IV breast cancer and unable to stand trial.

The crowd in the larger ceremonial courtroom has been packed, even with no reporters or observers.  A separate courtroom has been equipped with a closed-circuit video feed for the overflow crowd.

Many are wondering how the case will be tried with so many defense attorneys, opening statements, cross examinations, the possibility of one defendant “flipping’ on another, prosecutors having the responsibility of making each of the 12 have unique and memorable cases, and a confused jury.  The question also arises as to how 12 impartial jurors, who can also put their lives on hold for three months or more, will be found.

It was The Atlanta Journal-Constitution which, nine months ago, noticed that gains in scores on standardized tests, at some schools, were all but statistically impossible. Because of that reporting, Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue ordered an investigation of 185 teachers and administrators and teachers at 44 Atlanta Public Schools.  Since that time, 35 APS employees  have been indicted on charges including conspiring to cheat on federally mandated curriculum tests, influencing witnesses, making false statements under oath, and theft.

One defendant has died and 21 have entered a guilty plea,then turned state’s witness, and received sentences on probation.  At the plea hearings, many distraught educators said they were told to make changes to the test so that test-score targets would be reached and there would be no excuses accepted if they did not do what they were told to do.

Another factor that may make the case last longer and make it become more complex, according to a report by CBS News, is the use of a law designed to to combat racketeering.  The Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute can be used when prosecutors  want to establish a pattern of activity within an organization.

In this case, the pattern would be that there was pressure from the top being imposed on the school district.  Specifically, that Hall and her top-ranked staff  “created a culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation”.

A professor of law at the University of Georgia, Ron Carlson, is hopeful that some explanations and more clarity will result from the trial.  He believes, however, that there will be defendants who will put all the blame on Superintendent Hall.

“The main question is will the jury buy that?” Carlson said. “If there are a number of acquittals based on the defense that the superintendent made us do this, things will remain clouded for a while.”