An incredibly rare criminal cheating trial in Atlanta is coming to an end, and it could send school teachers to prison for allegedly violating a law originally enacted to go after mobsters.
Prosecutors are using Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) to accuse former principals, teachers, and administrators of trying to boost their bonuses by conspiring to artificially raise kids’ test scores. The dozen educators on trial could go to prison for up to 20 years.
During closing arguments on Tuesday, a lawyer for the defence suggested that it was a ludicrous abuse of power to bring racketeering charges against school teachers, as the Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported.
“Never have I seen the power of the state wielded like I have in this case,” defence lawyer Akil Secret reportedly said. “They are liars, cheaters and thieves who came up here to testify to save their own skins. This RICO stuff is overreaching. … It’s an abuse of discretion. Teachers? Racketeers? Really?”
While only 12 ex-educators are on trial in Atlanta, dozens of teachers and administrators were initially charged and many have since pleaded guilty in exchange for their cooperation in exposing a scandal that captured national attention. A lawyer for one of the teachers on trial, Angela Williamson, previously suggested to Business Insider that her willingness to go to trial was a sign of her innocence.
“For the individuals that were falsely accused no level of plea reduction would work because their names have been associated with this scandal, and they want to clear their names,” her lawyer, Gerald Griggs, told Business Insider last year.
That scandal might not have been uncovered if it weren’t for a pair of ambitious reporters at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution(AJC).Back in 2008, Heather Vogell,now a reporter for ProPublica, noticed unusual gains at some schools on a standardized test called the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT). As she explained to the Huffington Post,the gains seemed unbelievable even to the naked eye.
The article she ended up publishing in December 2008 with computer-assisted reporting specialist John Perry is alarming. That initial article looked at unlikely gains at several schools, including Atherton Elementary School, where nearly 88% of the kids were living in poverty as of 2010. Half of the school’s fifth-graders had failed the CRCT in the spring of 2008. The 32 kids were all forced to retake the test. Every single one of them passed, and 26 scored at the highest level, Vogell and Perry wrote. More from that article:
A miracle occurred at Atherton Elementary this summer, if its standardized maths test scores are to be believed …
No other Georgia fifth grade pulled off such a feat in the past three years. It was, as one researcher put it, as extraordinary as a snowstorm in July. In Atlanta.
Of course, Atherton was only a small part of the story. Vogell told HuffPost that the story prompted a number of teachers to contact her about rampant cheating at Atlanta’s schools under the leadership of Superintendent Beverly Hall, who was indicted along with dozens of others. (Hall died of breast cancer earlier this month, before she could take the stand at trial.)
While the AJC kept digging into the story, the state of Georgia conducted its own investigation, which in 2011 uncovered cheating at 44 schools that involved at least 178 educators, according to The New York Times.
That investigation relied largely on a third-grade teacher named Jackie Parks, who admitted to state investigator Richard Hyde that she had sat with six teachers in a windowless room to change test answers the week of state testing.
Parks agreed to wear a wire to school and record her fellow teachers.
“During his 35 years as a Georgia state investigator, Richard Hyde has persuaded all sorts of criminals — corrupt judges, drug dealers, money launderers, racketeers — to turn state’s evidence, but until Jackie Parks, he had never tried to flip an elementary school teacher,” The Times reported in March 2013. “It worked.”
Closing arguments in the trial — one of the longest-ever criminal trials in Georgia’s history — are expected to wrap up Wednesday, according to the Associated Press.
“What happened to our children, it was sad, it was ugly,” prosecutor Clint Rucker told the jury, according to the AP. “They were cheating and it’s not right and I’m asking y’all to do something about it.”
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