It should never have come to this. Never. But somehow, it seems almost preordained.
Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter has sent eight of the 11 teachers and administrators convicted in the Atlanta Public Schools scandal to prison terms of a year up to seven years. The harsh sentences came just a day after Baxter said he had a change of heart and wanted to avoid sending people to prison.
What changed overnight, one baffled defense attorney asked? While an angry and frustrated Baxter didn’t respond directly, the answer was pretty clear. Nothing had changed, and that was exactly the problem.
From the beginning, many of those involved in the cheating scandal have never seemed to understand the gravity of what they had done. At every step, they wasted every chance to accept responsibility.
Seven years ago, when reporters for the Atlanta Journal Constitution began publishing evidence of widespread cheating on standardized tests, the response of the APS bureaucracy was complete and utter denial. Those who suggested there was a problem just didn’t believe that poor children could learn, we were told.
Five years ago, a so-called “Blue Ribbon Commission” created and led by the business community produced a whitewash of the problem, minimizing the scale and scope of the cheating and improbably concluding that “Neither the erasure analysis nor the traditional investigation revealed any data or other evidence that there was any district‐wide or centrally coordinated effort to manipulate the 2009 CRCT scores and outcomes of students in the 58 APS schools.”
Later, state investigators armed with subpoena power confirmed the evidence and exposed just how widespread the scandal had become, reaching from APS’ nationally recognized Superintendent Beverly Hall down to dozens of classroom teachers. Once again, denial was the official response. No one, most notably Hall, took responsibility.
Eighteen months ago, after extensive documentary and eyewitness evidence had been gathered, 21 teachers and administrators finally admitted to their role and escaped jail time in return for accepting responsibility. Twelve more refused, forcing a six-month jury trial. Eleven of those 12 were found guilty.
In a blogpost last week, I expressed hope that even those 11 would be treated leniently, with sentences for the ringleaders measured in months, not years, and lower-level participants given probation, fines and community service. While that was not to be, you can’t blame Baxter. Only two of the 11 would agree to admit guilt and take responsibility, and those two were given light sentences. Eight others wanted the same lenient treatment, but they wanted it while denying their role. (The ninth defendant will be sentenced later).
No deal, said Baxter. Clearly frustrated and angry, the judge called the scandal “the sickest thing to ever happen to this town” and acknowledged that many more people than just those before him had played a role in it. But that didn’t mean that those 11 should escape justice.
It’s fitting, I guess, that this scandal has ended just as it began, with a stubborn, close-minded refusal by those involved to comprehend their own actions. The ending was tragic, the beginning was tragic, the whole damned thing was tragic.