Trial of 12 set to begin in Atlanta cheating case



ATLANTA — More than a year after 35 Atlanta Public Schools educators were indicted in a school cheating scandal that rocked the system, 12 people are set to go to trial Monday.

The former administrators, principals, testing coordinators and teachers face racketeering charges. Individual charges include influencing witnesses and lying to state investigators.

Prosecutors said more than 30 educators participated in a conspiracy to cheat on standardized tests dating back to 2005, motivated by pressure to meet federal and APS standards and receive bonuses or keep their jobs.

Prosecutors have agreed to plea deals with 21 defendants included in the initial indictment, and several could testify against former colleagues. Prosecutors expect jury selection to take two to four weeks and the trial to last from four to six months.

Former district superintendent Beverly Hall will not be among the defendants Monday. Judge Jerry Baxter ruled in July that the trial would continue without Hall, who is battling cancer. Hall has long denied any knowledge of cheating. But the number of defendants involved and the use of a law designed to combat organized crime could lead to a lengthy and complex trial, experts said. Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organi­zations statute, or RICO, can be used when prosecutors want to demonstrate a pattern of activity within either an illegal or legitimate organization, said Caren Morrison, an associate professor of law at Georgia State University and a former assistant U.S. attorney.

Morrison said she expects prosecutors to present evidence they would have used against Hall to explain their broader theory: that the district was an enterprise with pressure from the top.

“There’s one fewer lawyer making objections or a few witnesses specific to (Hall) may be cut, but when you read the indictment there are many, many subparts that have to be proved beyond a reasonable doubt,” Morrison said.

A 2011 state investigation found widespread cheating on annual state exams used to determine whether schools met the No Child Left Behind law, with ties to extra funding. Investigators reported cheating in 44 schools with nearly 180 educators involved and said Hall and her top staff “created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation.”

Ron Carlson, professor of law at University of Georgia, said he hopes the trial will bring some clarity. “The main question is will the jury buy that?” Carlson said. “If there are a number of acquittals based on the defense that the superintendent made us do this, things will remain clouded for a while.”