Eight former Atlanta public school educators have been ordered to serve between one and seven years in prison for their convictions on racketeering charges in one of the United States’ largest test-cheating scandals.
The lengthy prison sentences, unusual for educators, contrasted to the treatment of two defendants in the case also found guilty by a jury this month. Both accepted responsibility under a deal with prosecutors that spared them significant time behind bars.
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Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter gave three of the educators convicted in the scandal 20-year sentences, with seven years to be served in prison and the rest on probation.
Five educators received five-year sentences, with two ordered to serve two years in prison and three to serve one year.
Al Jazeera’s Andy Gallacher, reporting from Atlanta, said that the judge had offered the educators the chance to apologise in return for lighter sentences, and when it became apparent that many refused to accept the deal, he made his feelings known.
“I don’t want an apology, I don’t want it! I want the community to have the apology, and I want these children that were short-changed and cheated to have the apology,” the judge said.
“It’s like the sickest thing that’s ever happened to this town,” he later said of the scandal that raised national alarm about high-stakes testing.
Lighter punishments after apologies
Two convicted educators, who apologised in court under agreements with prosecutors, received lighter punishments.
One must serve six months of weekends in jail and five years of probation. The other avoided jail and was sentenced to five years probation, with one year of an evening home curfew.
“It was unjust,” said Benjamin Davis, attorney for one of the three administrators who received the harshest sentences. “The judge got upset and very emotional.”
But Solomon Emmerson, a parent, said the real victims are the children.
“They’re being miseducated, they’re being misguided and … these are the educators. And they have let the children down,” he said.
Cheating was rampant throughout the Atlanta school district in 2009, state investigators found, prompting schools nationwide to enact measures guarding against cheating.
Erasing wrong answers was part of the cheating by the educators under pressure to meet test targets, prosecutors said during a nearly six-month trial.
Student achievement helped the former principals, teachers and administrators to secure promotions and cash bonuses.