In a moment that sounded like a clip from a TV courtroom drama, Atlanta Judge Jerry Baxter vents his frustration at the defendants: “All I want from any of these people is just to take some responsibility, but they refuse.”
“Eight former city public-school educators were sentenced to prison Tuesday,” The Wall Street Journal reports (Apr. 15), “for inflating student standardized-test scores in a vast conspiracy that the judge called ‘the sickest thing that’s ever happened in this town.’
“…Baxter sentenced three former high-ranking administrators to penalties lasting 20 years, including seven years in prison. Prosecutors had recommended five-year penalties, with three served behind bars.
“ ‘There were thousands of children that were harmed in this thing,’ Judge Baxter said of one of the largest school-cheating scandals in U.S. history.
“The sentencing was set to occur on Monday, but the judge postponed it to allow time for plea negotiations. Defendants who agreed to a plea deal were required to waive their rights to appeal and to publicly admit guilt.
“Eight of the defendants balked at the proposal, while two accepted the deal and were given probation and weekend jail time.”
Baxter’s comments arose from the courtroom in response to the eight you refused the deal and responsibility.
“Many here, amid widespread calls for leniency before the sentencing,” The New York Times writes (Apr. 15), “were shocked at the severity of the sentences handed down by Judge Jerry W. Baxter, who had seemed to indicate on Monday that he wanted to avoid prison terms. But after the deals fell through, and while declaring the cheating scandal ‘the sickest thing that’s ever happened in this town,’ he imposed sentences that appeared to be more harsh than those in similar cheating scandals elsewhere and that exceeded what criminals sometimes receive for violent crimes.”
“In all,” The Journal writes, “35 people were indicted in March 2013. The group included Beverly Hall, the district’s nationally celebrated superintendent.
“Since the indictments, 21 of those charged settled with plea agreements, and two defendants died of cancer, including Ms. Hall. Before her March 2 death, Ms. Hall repeatedly denied wrongdoing.
“Eleven of the remaining 12 educators were convicted on April 1 under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO, which carries a maximum sentence of 20 years. Several also were convicted on other felonies related to the cheating case. One was acquitted.
“During the trial, which lasted more than five months, the prosecution argued that Ms. Hall oversaw the wide-ranging scheme, which occurred in 2009, to fix incorrect answers on the state’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, falsely inflating the reputation of the urban school system.”
While the cheating scandal, one of the largest reported in U.S. history, galvanized citizens, teachers and parents, I’m not sure anyone expected Judge Baxter to sentence the teachers, who had a spotless record up to this point, to prison terms equivalent to drug dealers.
Would justice have been better served if Judge Baxter had forced them to equal years of community service that would require them to personally re-educate most of the thousands who were cheated of a proper education? Sadly, we will never know.