by Larry Copeland, USA TODAY
ATLANTA -- As dozens of educators indicted in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal prepare for the next phase of the legal process, some area African-Americans view the indictments as overkill.
The school system indictments -- which featured the unprecedented spectacle of black educators, traditionally among the most respected figures in their community, taking a "perp walk" on the evening news -- exposed the racial fault lines in the city known as the Black Mecca.
"The community is saying this is wrong. We're treating these educators like they're criminals, like they're drug dealers, like they're gangsters," said Timothy McDonald III, pastor of First Iconium Baptist Church and a member of Atlanta's Concerned Black Clergy. "Yes, fire the ones who cheated. But this is over-reaching."
On March 29, a Fulton County grand jury indicted 35 Atlanta educators, including former superintendent Beverly Hall, in what prosecutors call a huge cheating conspiracy stretching to 58 schools. The administrators, principals, teachers and even a school secretary face charges of racketeering, conspiracy and making false statements. Hall, who retired days before the 2011 release of a state cheating probe, also faces theft charges, because her salary rose with rising student test scores on standardized tests.
"I think a lot of people were fairly neutral on (the cheating scandal)," said Nathan McCall, an Emory University lecturer and writer. "And once they began to see the visuals of these educators as criminals, the history of strained race relations between blacks in the city of Atlanta and whites in the rest of the state, began to resurface."
The indictments came after a nearly two-year investigation that looked at test scores dating to 2005. Cheating allegations first surfaced in 2008, when The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported on "statistically improbable increases" in scores on the state-mandated Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) at one Atlanta school. In 2009, the newspaper found similar increases at a dozen schools. The stories eventually led then-governor Sonny Perdue to appoint two special investigators, who in 2011 found cheating in 44 of the 56 schools they examined. In all, they found that 178 educators had cheated on CRCT tests.
Former Georgia attorney general Michael Bowers, one of the two special investigators, said a team of investigators conducted 2,100 interviews and reviewed 800,000 documents. He said that what he heard from some of the teachers who'd been forced to cheat left him in tears. "I went to West Point," he said. "I saw 22 or 23 guys being executed. ... I'm fairly tough.
"We had teachers faint in our interview room," he said. "The thing I remember most was talking to some of the teachers who had been mistreated, mostly single moms. And it's heartbreaking. They told of how they had been forced to cheat. One told me, 'Mr. Bowers, this is a big joke. You can't imagine how badly I feel. I cheated. I was forced to cheat. I had no choice. I spent my days as a teacher combing hair, brushing teeth, making sure children had something to eatâ€¦.I taught third grade, and I cheated. If my father were alive, he would be so ashamed he wouldn't know what to do.'"
Subsequent investigations suggest the Atlanta case may not be isolated. An investigation last year by the Journal-Constitution found 196 school districts across the USA with suspicious test score gains. In 2011, USA TODAY looked at scores across six states and the District of Columbia and found more than 1,600 cases of improbable score gains, including several cases in which educators in D.C. schools erased student answers on test forms.
The Atlanta cheating scandal is but the most recent in a series of cases in metro Atlanta that have placed public education squarely at the nexus of race and politics:
The 35 Atlanta educators -- all of them black -- were indicted just weeks after Gov. Nathan Deal suspended six elected school board members -- five of them black -- in neighboring DeKalb County.
The DeKalb incident has led some parents in predominantly white areas of the county to explore creating separate school systems.
The Georgia Legislature had granted gubernatorial authority to replace school board members whose systems were in jeopardy of losing their accreditation in 2011 after neighboring Clayton County, also predominantly black, lost its accreditation in 2008.
"They're all connected," McDonald said. "If you look at Clayton County, DeKalb County, Atlanta, these are overwhelmingly majority African-American school districts. This is not about the children. This is about money. Every school system has contracts. This is about folks getting their hands on those contracts."
In a news conference on the day the Atlanta indictments were announced, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard, who is African American, stressed that the case was about providing the best education for Atlanta public school students and their parents.
Meanwhile, Thomas Cox, the attorney for Eugene Walker, one of the suspended DeKalb County school board members, said his client is challenging the constitutionality of his removal from the school board in the Georgia Supreme Court.
"The Georgia Constitution says local school board members are constitutional officials and they are to be elected by the voters," Cox said. "The Constitution says they can be recalled, or possibly removed if convicted of a felony. Nowhere does the constitution give authority to the General Assembly or the governor to come up with a method of removing school board members, certainly not when recommended by a private (accreditation) entity not accountable to the voters."