Multi-million dollar bonds set for defendants in cheating scandal

ATLANTA — Nearly three dozen Atlanta Public Schools educators must report to jail by April 2, after a grand jury returned an indictment against them for their involvement in a massive cheating scandal.

The charges range from influencing witnesses to theft by taking. Among those listed in the indictment is former APS superintendent Dr. Beverly Hall, who has been charged with violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO.

The $7.5 million bond set for Hall is a cash bond and she would have to ask a judge to lower it, sources told Channel 2 Action News. The grand jury set multi-million-dollar bonds for several defendants in the case.

Once they are booked in, all 35 will make a first appearance where bond will be discussed and, most, likely released within hours. That first court appearance could come as soon as a few hours after they report to the jail, depending on how early in the morning they surrender, authorities told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. Otherwise, they will not go to court until the next morning.

A total of 35 people were named in the indictment. They include school executives, principals, teachers, testing coordinators and even a secretary. The indictment also includes a total of 65 charges against the 35.

Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard detailed what he says amounted to a criminal conspiracy to cheat on the CRCT exams, a conspiracy he said was headed up by Hall.

Former Human Resources Director Millicent Few and area superintendents Sharon Davis-Williams, Tamara Cotman and Michael Pitts are also charged with racketeering along with separate crimes like intimidating witnesses and retaliating against whistleblowers.

"We've got many examples of people who made complaints, and once the complaints were lodged, they were terminated by the Atlanta Public School system," Howard said.

According to the indictment, Hall and others created a climate where cheating was the only way to achieve target testing goals, and if an educator failed, they were punished.

"Employees who failed to satisfy targets were terminated or threatened with termination while others who achieved targets through cheating were publically praised and financially rewarded," the indictment stated.

The grand jury indicted Hall and others on theft charges because Howard said they got big bonuses for reaching those testing goals.

"I think it, the financial terms, were a motivation all across the board, not just for Dr. Hall, but many of the employees who received bonuses as a result of the cheating," Howard said.

Hall could not be reached for comment on the indictment, but her attorney sent a statement saying, "We are obviously disappointed that the District Attorney has brought charges against Dr. Beverly Hall.

"Dr. Hall denies these charges and, as she has said all along, she denies any involvement in cheating on the CRCT exam or any other wrongdoing.

"We note that as far as has been disclosed, despite the thousands of interviews that were reportedly done by the Governor's investigators and others, not a single person reported that Dr. Hall participated in or directed them to cheat on the CRCT.

"We intend to vigorously defend this case and we are confident that when all the evidence is in, she will be fully vindicated."

Channel 2's Eric Philips dug into  Hall's past, and by his calculation, Hall received about $500,000 in bonus money based on CRCT scores.

Attorney Musa Ghanayem has worked as both a defense attorney and prosecutor. He believes the $7.5 million figure recommended by the grand jury is meant to send a message.

"That bond number does surprise me," Ghanayem said. "Unless we're talking about an individual who is very, very wealthy, that's tantamount to no bond at all."

Philips went to Hall's Atlanta home for a response, but did not find her there. A neighbor did share her opinion on the indictment of Hall and others.

"If they were guilty, they should be found guilty and punished accordingly," neighbor Barbara Russell said.

Hall has repeatedly denied having any knowledge of the widespread cheating scandal, saying she looked into it.

Yet Hall dodged Channel 2's cameras in Atlanta and even all the way out in Hawaii when questioned about cheating.


Blowing the whistle

Howard called the cheating scandal at Atlanta Public Schools a crime against children.

On Friday, Channel 2's Ashley Swann heard from two of the families who served as whistleblowers in the investigation who Howard credits with giving his team the courage to complete their investigation.

Juwanna Guffie was in fifth grade at Dunbar Elementary when she said her teacher told her and her classmates what to write on their CRCT exams.

"I feel good, relief that it's all over," Guffie said as she walked away from the Fulton County Courthouse Friday evening.

Now in eighth grade, Guffie stood bravely before reporters to recount her experience with the teacher three years ago who she said insisted she and her classmates rewrite their answers during the CRCT writing test using information the teacher provided.

"Now I'm in the eighth (grade) doing good," Guffie told reporters. "But I still have to live with this for the rest of my life."

Her mother, Justina Collins, grew emotional as she recalled the impact the cheating scandal has had on her now 15-year-old daughter.

"I have a 15-year-old now who is behind in achieving her goal of becoming what she wants to be when she graduates," Collins said.

Collins said her suspicions began in 2006 when her daughter was failing in school but passing state tests with flying colors.

"Everyone kept telling me that she was just an exceptional child who does well on a test," Collins said.

Collins said she took her concerns to the Atlanta Public School Board and even Hall herself, to no avail.

"I didn't know who else to go to after that," Collins said.

Even now, her daughter reads at a fourth-grade level.

"I'm disappointed," said Collins. "As a parent who wants the best for their child, I'm very disappointed."

Collins removed her daughter from Atlanta Public Schools. She said she's now getting the extra help she needs to catch up.


Moving forward

Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Erroll Davis wouldn't comment specifically on the indictment of 35 former APS employees, saying it's now a legal matter between Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard's office and the people charged.

He said the indictment was a difficult reminder of the lasting effects the cheating scandal has had but pointed to the progress APS has made since that time.

"But healing is obviously difficult when you consider the gravity of these indictments," Davis said.

Atlanta School Board Chairman Reuben McDaniel said it's hard to hear stories of families who tried unsuccessfully to get answers about testing irregularities.

"It's heartbreaking," he told Channel 2's Amy Napier Viteri. "I think the biggest heartbreak of all of this is the students we don't know were harmed by this who are now struggling."

Davis said the district took several steps to keep this from happening again.

"We now require all employees to successfully complete an annual ethics course and that is a condition of employment," he said.

Davis went on to say ethics and integrity expectations are now part of APS contracts and the district expects those requirements to be met at all times. He said they also boosted safeguards related to the actual test materials. APS also added an anonymous tipline where people can report unethical behavior.


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