By Belinda Robinson For Mail Online and Associated Press Reporter
In one of the biggest cheating scandals of its kind in the U.S., 11 former Atlanta public school educators were convicted Wednesday of racketeering for their role in a scheme to inflate students’ scores on standardized exams.
The defendants – including teachers, a principal and other administrators – were accused of falsifying test results to collect bonuses or keep their jobs in the 50,000-student Atlanta school system.
The educators fed answers to students or erased and changed the answers on tests after they were turned in to secure promotions or up to $5,000 each in bonuses, the court was told.
However the person accused of benefiting the most from the conspiracy, Superintendent Beverly Hall – who is thought to have received up to $500,000 in bonus payouts – died of breast cancer over the course of the trial.
A 12th defendant, a teacher, was acquitted of all charges by the jury this week.
The 11 will all be sentenced on April 8 and could face up to 20 years in prison for the racketeering charges.
They were all found guilty under the the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, which is typically reserved for major mobsters and organized crime bosses.
‘This is a huge story and absolutely the biggest development in American education law since forever,’ said University of Georgia law professor Ron Carlson.
‘It has to send a message to educators here and broadly across the nation. Playing with student test scores is very, very dangerous business.’
The case stems from an investigation carried out in 2011, which uncovered evidence that the educators gave answers to students or changed answers on tests after they were turned in.
Evidence of cheating was found in 44 schools, with nearly 180 educators involved, and investigators found teachers who tried to report it faced retaliation.
The cheating is believed to date back to 2001, when scores on statewide skills tests began to turn around in the 50,000-student school district.
Between 2005 and 2009, test answers were altered and falsely certified, according to the 2013 indictment.
According to Governing.com, most educators’ bonuses didn’t exceed a total of $5,000 between 2005 and 2009.
A grand jury indicted 35 educators in March 2013 on charges including racketeering, false statements and theft.
Many reached plea agreements, serve between 250 and 1,000 hours of community service, repay between $500 and $5,000 in bonus money and complete up to two years of probation.
Others testified at the trial against their co-conspirators.
However, Superintendent Beverly Hall never went to trial, successfully arguing she was too sick to mount a defense. She died last month of breast cancer.
Hall insisted she was innocent and had no part in any cheating.
But, the educators said she was among those pressuring them to inflate students’ scores to show gains in achievement — which were needed to meet federal benchmarks tied to extra funding.
Hall, who served as superintendent for more than a decade, which is rare for an urban schools chief, was named Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009 and was credited with raising student test scores and graduation rates.
The investigation found that Hall ‘created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation’ during her time as Superintendent.
It also found that she had permitted ‘cheating — at all levels — to go unchecked for years’.
Investigators believe she may have accepted up to $500,000 in bonus payouts as a result of the ongoing cheating scandal.
In a video message to schools staff before she retired, Hall warned that the state investigation launched by former Gov. Sonny Perdue would likely reveal ‘alarming’ behavior’.
Hall said: ‘There is simply no excuse for unethical behavior and no room in this district for unethical conduct.’
Defense attorneys argued those convicted should remain free until sentencing because they don’t have prior records, have community ties and showed up to trial every day.
Yet, only one was allowed to remain free on bond — teacher Shani Robinson — because she is expecting to give birth soon.
The jury reached its verdict on the eighth day of deliberations.
Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter said: ‘They are convicted felons as far as I’m concerned. They have made their bed and they’re going to have to lie in it.’
Prosecutors said the 12 former educators on trial were looking out for themselves, seeking bonuses for higher test scores rather than worrying about the education of their students.
Defense attorneys argued that their clients were caught up in an overly broad prosecution that overreached in charging them with violating racketeering laws most often used for organized crime.
The months-long trial began in August with more than six weeks of jury selection, and testimony concluded in late February.
The criminal investigation by the Fulton County district attorney’s office lasted nearly two years.
It only came to light after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2008 that some test scores were statistically improbable.
District Attorney Paul Howard said it was the biggest and most complex case his office had ever handled.
It lasted nearly two years and involved hundreds of interviews with school administrators, staff, parents and students.
‘Our entire effort in this case was simply to get our community to stop and take a look at the education system,’ Howard said.
Dessa Curb, a former elementary school teacher, was the one educator acquitted of all charges.
‘I’ve prayed and I believed that this would be my outcome,’ said a dazed-looking Curb, tears in her eyes.