Atlanta Educators Convicted in Cheating Scandal Prepare for Prison
By Education Week Correspondent Lisa Stark
Two former Atlanta Public Schools educators, convicted in the district's test cheating scandal in 2015, will now be heading to prison after exhausting the appeals of their 2015 convictions. They will be the first to begin serving their prison sentences, out of the 11 teachers and administrators convicted of a conspiracy to boost student scores on state standardized tests.
The latest turn in this long-running case comes after the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this week declined to hear an appeal filed by Tamara Cotman and Angela Williamson. Cotman was a regional administrator and Williamson taught 4th grade at Dobbs Elementary School. Both women have remained free on bond during the appeals process.
State investigators said that Cotman threatened educators with their jobs if they didn't boost scores by "any means possible." As for Williamson, she reportedly prompted students to change incorrect answers during the test, and "threatened students by telling them they would have to repeat the 4th grade if they ever told of the cheating."
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, whose office prosecuted the case and offered the defendants plea bargain deals said, "We are not happy or elated about what is to happen with them. We would have preferred they would have taken responsiblity many days before and we would hope we would not be at this point."
The women have maintained their innocence. After their convictions in 2015, they appealed to the Georgia Court of Appeals, which upheld their convictions. Both the Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Williamson "is shaken by the decision of the Supreme Court, but she is resolute in her maintenance of her innocence," attorney Gerald Griggs said in an interview with Education Week. "She is preparing to turn herself into the Fulton County Sheriff to begin serving her sentence." Williamson faces up to two years in prison.
Cotman was sentenced to three years. Her attorney Benjamin Davis did not return a call asking for a comment.
Nearly 200 Atlanta educators were initially linked to systematic cheating, either by guiding students to correct answers or erasing and changing answers after students turned in their tests. Prosecutors said that the educators were under enormous pressure from then-Superintendent Beverly Hall to boost test scores in the high-poverty district. Hall was also charged in the case but died from cancer before going to trial.
The cheating came to light after the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on the suspicious test scores.
Of the 11 educators who were ultimately convicted, Cotman and Williamson were the only ones who appealed directly to the higher courts. Two others accepted plea bargains, and the remaining 7 defendants are planning on asking for a new trial. As of now, that trial date has not been set.
Photo credit: Dobbs Elementary School in Atlanta was the epicenter of a 2007-08 cheating scandal that sunk the careers of dozens of educators and altered the education of tens of thousands of students. Swikar Patel/Education Week
See Education Week's coverage of the Atlanta test-cheating scandal