Jurors in the Atlanta School cheating case have finally begun to deliberate after hearing almost six months of testimony as they decide whether 12 former educators are guilty of participating in a districtwide conspiracy to cheat on student standardized tests.
The 12 former educators are the only ones left of the original 35 who had been indicted in March of 2013. Since that time, 21 people accepted plea deals and 2 died of cancer, including Beverly Hall, who had been superintendent of the district.
Hall, who passed away on March 2, denied any involvement "to her dying breath," according to her lawyer, although the prosecution argued that she had actually overseen the whole operation and was the recipient of $300,000 in bonuses during the period of time discussed during the scandal, writes Cameron McWhirter for The Wall Street Journal.
The defendants have all been charged under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, which has a maximum sentence of 20 years, in addition to a number of other felonies. An investigation had discovered that the educators had erased incorrect answers and some of them even instructed their students to change their answers.
The months-long trial ended with two days of closing arguments, which saw defense lawyers criticize the prosecutors for offering immunity to particular witnesses.
"The state, basically, has come up with a recipe for wrongful convictions," said Mr. Franks, who represents Diane Buckner-Webb, a former teacher at Dunbar Elementary School in southwest Atlanta.
Meanwhile, Alan Blinder for The New York Times reported that prosecutors argued that the cheating unveiled a system of academically inadequate teachers, staff and students.
"They changed answers from wrong to right on the C.R.C.T. exam for a whole bunch of folks over the course of a whole bunch of years," Mr. Rucker said of some of those charged in the episode, which he described as one about "creating a false impression of academic success" that could lead to bonuses.
The scandal was first discovered in 2009 when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution became concerned over changed answers on standardized exams occurring at public schools across Atlanta. Special investigators, appointed by then Governor Sonny Perdue, put together a special report in 2011, finding that cheating had been rampant among teachers and administrators within the schools. The investigators concluded that the teachers were cheating in response to pressure from Hall's administration to either boost test scores or be faced with disciplinary measures or reduced pay, reports David Beasley for Reuters.
Before the scandal, Hall was considered a reformer who had improved student achievement, even receiving the award of National Superintendent of the Year given by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009, the same year that prosecutors say the cheating occurred.
The case is one of the largest school cheating scandals in US history.