That teacher, Angela Williamson, was one of 35 Atlanta Public Schools (APS) employees indicted last year in a massive cheating case that accused them of engaging in a criminal conspiracy to boost standardized test scores to get higher bonuses. The cheating ring allegedly went all the way up to now-disgraced ex-APS superintendent Beverly Hall, and state investigators used wiretaps to gather crucial evidence in the case.
Williamson’s lawyer, Gerald Griggs, suggested the allegations against her are flimsier than those against many of the other teachers, who allegedly participated in “cheating parties” in order to change kids’ answers on a standardized test known as the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT).
Unlike other school employees, Williamson was never caught on a wiretap, according to her lawyer. Some allegations against her sound silly, while one allegation makes her sound like a mobster.
“They are saying she prompted students to change answers as opposed to other people [educators] engaging in cheating parties,” Griggs said in a recent phone interview. “Our response is she never prompted anyone to do anything.”
Georgia state investigators have alleged that during 2009 testing she sent signals in the form of coughs or frowns when she wanted kids to change their answers, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has reported. One test proctor also testified she heard Williamson give students answers, according to a document from the State Board of Education. (Her lawyer says one test proctor will testify on Williamson’s behalf, though.)
In a graver allegation, Georgia state investigators say Williamson told her students, “If you tell anyone about this, it would be the last person you tell.”
Over the past year and a half, many of the teachers and school administrators indicted along with Williamson pleaded guilty to lesser charges and agreed to cooperate with authorities.
Williamson never considered a plea deal, Griggs told Business Insider. Now she and the others on trial face up to 20 years in prison if they’re convicted of violating Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced And Corrupt Organisations (RICO) Act.
“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,” Griggs told us.
Dobbs Elementary School, a school with many poor kids where Williamson taught, got caught up in the cheating scandal when a state audit found an unusually high number of wrong-to-right erasures on the CRCT. Williamson is accused of prompting kids to change those answers, a feat her lawyer says is impossible.
There were 100 questions on the test, and different versions of that test floated around the room, her lawyer Gerald Griggs told us. In order to help the kids cheat, Griggs said she would have had to hover over students, read several paragraphs that are used to assess kids’ reading comprehension, and feed them the answers — all with a test proctor standing right outside. Griggs also said that the student who made claims about “cough prompts” admitted that Williamson never said before the test that she planned to cough to signal that kids should change the answers.
According to state investigators, Williamson has said she “returned her CRCT tests in a particular order, and sometimes the next day the tests would be returned out of order.” The implications of this observation aren’t entirely clear but suggest somebody else at the school may have changed the answers on the tests and mixed up their order.
In any event, a tribunal of educators of educators found Williamson innocent of the cheating allegations last year and voted to reinstate her. However, her lawyer says her contract is in limbo pending the outcome of the criminal case, which is entirely separate from the tribunal. She has been on leave without pay for two years.
The trial against the dozen ex-educators will likely take several months because it involves a dozen defendants with a dozen lawyers who will each make opening statements and cross-examine witnesses.
“We fully expect for her to be exonerated,” Griggs said. “She wants to continue her teaching career.”
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