Most of the educators read their letters of apology aloud in court. Others asked their attorneys to read them because they were too emotional to utter the words.
So far, 17 principals, teachers and other former Atlanta Public Schools employees have entered guilty pleas in the test-cheating scandal. They have admitted to changing students’ answers on tests, directing subordinates to do so and then trying to cover up their misdeeds.
But the most poignant moments of the plea hearings have been when the letters were read to Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter. The former educators cited intense pressure to meet unrealistic goals, but acknowledged that did not excuse their conduct.
The District Attorney’s Office has imposed a number of conditions on the 17 defendants who have cut deals, such as requiring them to testify at the upcoming trial and complete at least 250 hours of community service. All those who have pleaded guilty have received sentences of probation.
Another condition: All defendants must write a letter of apology to the community and the APS students who were affected by the defendants’ actions. Although the plea agreements have not required the letters to be read aloud in court, Baxter has insisted it be done.
Last Monday, Baxter called all the remaining APS defendants to appear with their lawyers to find out who would enter guilty pleas and who would go to trial. Baxter began the hearing by accepting guilty pleas and listening to the defendants’ letters of apology being read aloud.
After a couple of pleas were entered, attorney Sanford Wallack asked if he and his client, former teacher Dessa Curb, could leave because Curb was going to trial. No, Baxter insisted, “You need to stay and listen.”
Former Venetian Hills Elementary School principal Clarietta Davis was soon sitting at the defense table and admitting to changing her students’ answers on standardized tests in 2007 and 2008.
When it came time to read her letter of apology, Davis paused a few times as her lawyer, Kimberly Cornwell, gently placed her hand on Davis’ back to calm her.
Davis said she had long tried to set an example of integrity, character and ethics.
“Unfortunately, those same principles and values were not exemplified in my poor judgment as one of the participants involved in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal, which has blemished our educational system,” she wrote. “… It is devastating.”
In her letter, former Benteen Elementary teacher Sheila Evans said when she helped correct wrong answers on the 2009 tests her third-grade students suffered more harm than good.
“What I have learned from this incident is that public light and openness is the best remedy and disinfectant,” Evans said when pleading guilty in December. “With the light that has been shined on this scandal, important changes have arrived and for that I am grateful. I believe we are all better for it.”
Seventeen remain charged with engaging in a racketeering conspiracy to inflate test scores. A handful of them are in active negotiations with prosecutors. They have until Jan. 24 to decide whether to enter a negotiated plea or proceed toward a lengthy trial set to begin this spring.
Prosecutors predict that between 10 and 15 defendants will go to trial. Among them: former Superintendent Beverly Hall and three of her top lieutenants — former regional directors Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts.