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Grand jury indicts 35 in Georgia school cheating scandal

By Chelsea J. Carter, CNN
March 30, 2013 -- Updated 0255 GMT (1055 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Former Superintendent Beverly Hall 'was a full participant,' the district attorney says
  • Hall is among 35 indicted on racketeering and conspiracy charges
  • Hall has denied any involvement in cheating
  • Indictment alleges cheating on standardized testing at Atlanta Public Schools dates to 2001

Atlanta (CNN) -- In what has been described as one of the largest cheating scandals to hit the nation's public education system, 35 Atlanta Public Schools educators and administrators were indicted Friday on charges of racketeering and corruption.

The indictment is the bookend to a story that was once touted as a model for the nation's school districts after the district's test scores dramatically improved in some of its toughest urban schools.

Among those indicted by a Fulton County, Georgia, grand jury was Beverly Hall, the former schools superintendent who gained national recognition in 2009 for turning around Atlanta's school system.

"She was a full participant in that conspiracy," Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard told reporters during a news conference announcing the charges.

"Without her, this conspiracy could not have taken place, particularly in the degree in which it took place."

The indictment follows a state investigation that was launched after a series of reports by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper found large, unexplained gains in test scores in some Atlanta schools.

A state review determined that some cheating had occurred in more than half of the district's elementary and middle schools. About 180 teachers were initially implicated in the scandal.

2011: Quit or be fired, educators implicated in Atlanta scandal told

Threats and intimidation

Hall has denied any role in the cheating scandal. In 2011, she told The New York Times that her subordinates had allowed the cheating to occur, but denied she was involved.

Hall resigned from her position in 2011 following the state investigation, which lambasted her leadership and found widespread cheating in dozens of Atlanta schools.

The alleged cheating is believed to date back to early 2001, according to the indictment, when standardized testing scores began to turn around in the 50,000-student school district.

For at least a period of four years, between 2005 and 2009, test answers were altered, fabricated and falsely certified, the indictment said.

Hall allegedly oversaw a system where threats and intimidation were used against teachers, it said.

"As a result, cheating became more and more prevalent," the indictment said.

By the time the 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests, as the standardized test is known, was administered in Atlanta Public Schools, "cheating was taking place in a majority of APS's 83 elementary and middle schools."

Report: Test cheating may be widespread

The allegations, the indictment said, are substantiated by the Georgia Governor's Office of Student Achievement analysis of erasures on standardized tests.

'Suspicious' test score gains

According to the indictment, Hall placed unreasonable goals on educators and "protected and rewarded those who achieved targets by cheating. It also alleges she fired principals who failed to achieve goals and "ignored suspicious" test score gains throughout the school system.

In 2009, Hall was named the National Superintendent of the Year by the Schools Superintendents Association, which at the time said her "leadership has turned Atlanta into a model of urban school reform."

But the indictment paints another picture of Hall, one of a superintendent with "a single-minded purpose, and that is to cheat," Howard told reporters.

"For example, teachers who reported other teachers who cheated were terminated, while teachers who were caught cheating were only suspended," the indictment alleges.

"The message from Beverly Hall was clear: There were to be no exceptions and no excuses for failure to meet targets."

At the heart of the conspiracy to cheat, the indictment said, was money.

"It is further part of the conspiracy and endeavor that targets achieved through cheating were used by Beverly Hall to obtain substantial performance bonuses," the indictment said.

It also alleges a number of others received performance bonuses based on test scores.

2011: Seven educators step down as scandal unfolds

Racketeering and conspiracy

Of the 65 counts in the indictment, Hall and 34 others were charged with one count of violating Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, commonly known as RICO.

In addition to racketeering, Hall also is charged with making false statements and writings and theft by taking.

If convicted on all counts, she could face a maximum of 45 years in prison.

Among those also indicted were four of Hall's executive administrators, six principals, two assistant principals, six testing coordinators, 14 teachers, a school improvement specialist and a school secretary.

These Atlanta Public Schools officials are among those named:

-- Millicent Few, director of human resources, is accused of participating in the conspiracy and making false statements during the investigation.

-- Tamara Cotman, a regional supervisor who oversaw dozens of Atlanta's schools, is accused of intimidating witnesses, including a principal and other staff, in an effort to hinder an investigation.

-- Sharon Davis-Williams, who also oversaw a region of Atlanta's schools.

-- Michael Pitts, who oversaw a region of Atlanta's schools, also is accused of intimidating witnesses, primarily staff at Parks Middle School, in an effort to hinder or delay an investigation.

-- Christopher Waller, principal at Parks Middle School in Atlanta, where at least four teachers are accused of conspiring to cheat on standardized tests, is also alleged to have pressured teachers to cheat as early as spring 2006.

-- Armstead Salters, principal of Gideons Elementary School, where at least four teachers say he allegedly pressured them into cheating.

Hall and the 34 others named in the indictment have been ordered to surrender to authorities by Tuesday, said Howard, the district attorney.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution special report: Cheating our children

CNN's Dave Alsup, Joe Sutton and Darrell Calhoun contributed to this report.

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