A year ago, 11 former Atlanta teachers and school administrators were sentenced to prison, home confinement or jail after a historic test-cheating trial, yet many already are eligible to resume their careers.
That’s because state officials who oversee educational licensing don’t necessarily yank a teacher’s certificate when he or she is convicted of a crime.
Today, at least five of the educators convicted in the test-cheating conspiracy could resume their careers, even though their criminal sentences have not yet been served. Most are free while they are appealing their convictions.
Their licenses were suspended, but the suspensions are already finished. Georgia schools could hire them.
Former teacher Angela Williamson, convicted on racketeering and other felony counts, has been looking for a job, according to her lawyer. She was sentenced to two years in prison and three on probation. After the trial, she was given a two-year license suspension that was backdated to end more than a year before the trial.
Her lawyer, Gerald Griggs, said the Georgia Attorney General’s Office agreed both to the duration of the suspension and to allowing it to run during the period after Williamson was removed from her job following a state investigation into cheating several years ago.
Griggs said it’s only fair that her license was preserved given that others who pleaded guilty and helped prosecutors were allowed to continue working.
“They put teachers who admitted to cheating in front of kids well before this,” he said.
There was testimony that some of the 21 educators who had pleaded guilty were already working in rural Georgia and in other states.
“We don’t control employment,” said Paul Shaw, director of educator ethics at the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, which oversees certification. “If they want to hire these people, that is the choice of the school district.”
It’s unclear how many, if any, of the 11 convicted educators have returned to work in public schools. The Georgia Department of Education was unable to provide educator employment information this week.
Shaw said the retroactive license suspensions were like getting credit for time served. They were justified because the educators lost jobs and pay during the investigation.
Williamson’s case was not unusual. One former principal, Dana Evans, got a license suspension backdated to 2008-09.
Not all got off lightly, though.
Three of the convicted educators had their licenses revoked: former testing coordinator Donald Bullock accepted a revocation by the PSC, while Theresia Copeland, another former testing coordinator, and Tabeeka Jordan, who was an assistant principal, lost their licenses after appeals to an administrative hearing process.
The other three cases are unresolved: Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts were all “school reform team” executive directors — the highest officials at trial. They were given the stiffest criminal sentences, three years in prison and seven on probation, and are awaiting word on their licenses. They are free on bond.
A dozen educators went to trial in the cheating case. Only one, former teacher Dessa Curb, was found not guilty on all counts. She also got a backdated two-year suspension. Altogether, 185 teachers and other school officials were mentioned in the state investigation that led to the trial, and all faced review by the PSC. As of March, with nearly all the cases closed, eight had had their licenses revoked. About a hundred got some kind of suspension, with most lasting a few months or less. Another 64 got no sanction.
Atlanta parent Abby Martin said she wanted the 11 convicts barred permanently from schools. After all, she said, they robbed children of an education, inflicting untold harm. “You can’t suspend illiteracy,” she said. “That’s a life sentence.”
Shaw, the PSC ethics official, said he doesn’t think his agency went too easy on these educators. His agency’s investigators weren’t part of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s probe that led to the trial, he said, so the PSC didn’t have enough concrete evidence of cheating to end careers.
“You know someone was cheating,” he said, “but you can’t prove who.”
The felons in the APS cheating case, and how their criminal sentences compare to their professional license sanctions. Most were sentenced to prison and probation. All got fines and community service. All also faced sanctions by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission, the state licensing agency for educators. Some appealed the sanctions to an administrative law judge, who issued a final ruling. Others received lesser sanctions from the PSC after negotiating with the Georgia Attorney General’s office, which represents the PSC during the appeals. Here is a comparison of their incarceration and probation sentences versus their license sanctions, according to records from and interviews with the PSC. (The Attorney General’s office was asked for their records Tuesday but hadn’t produced any as of late Wednesday afternoon.)
Donald Bullock: Six months of weekends in jail and five years’ probation. The Georgia Professional Standards Commission revoked his license after the trial, and he didn’t appeal.
Diane Buckner-Webb: A year in prison and four years probation. Cut a deal with the Georgia Attorney General’s office for a two-year license suspension backdated to end as the trial began.
Pamela Cleveland: Five years probation with a year of home confinement. The PSC issued a two-year license suspension backdated to end as the trial began.
Theresia Copeland: A year in prison and four years probation. After the trial, an administrative law judge revoked her license.
Tamara Cotman: Three years in prison and seven years probation. No decision on licensing yet.
Sharon Davis-Williams: Three years in prison and seven years probation. No decision on licensing yet.
Dana Evans: A year in prison and four years probation. After the trial, an administrative law judge ordered a one-year license suspension that was backdated to five years before the trial.
Tabeeka Jordan: Two years in prison and three years probation. An administrative law judge revoked her license after the trial.
Michael Pitts: Three years in prison and seven years probation. No decision on licensing yet.
Shani Robinson: A year in prison and four years probation. The PSC issued a two-year license suspension backdated to end during the trial.
Angela Williamson: Two years in prison and three years probation. After the trial, an administrative law judge suspended her license for a two-year period that ended in March 2013. (Williamson’s attorney said the suspension was agreed to by the attorney general’s office. It spanned a period after she was removed from her job following a state investigation.)
In 2008, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the first in a series of stories highlighting suspect test scores in Atlanta Public Schools and other Georgia districts. In the years that followed, the newspaper kept digging, and eventually special investigators appointed by the governor exposed widespread cheating in Atlanta. The APS trial began Aug. 11, 2014. A verdict was reached on April 1, 2015, and the judge issued sentences on April 14.