Direct accusations of lying, stealing and cheating in an effort to inflate test scores and make financial gains was part of the prosecution’s opening statements Monday in the Atlanta Public Schools’ test cheating trial. Twelve defendants and their individual attorney teams have mounted their defense against a very detail set of charges by the state’s prosecution team. Defense attorney’s even responded back stating that some of the state’s witness will be lying.
A mixture of former APS administrators, testing coordinators and teachers are all facing racketeering charges centered around the erasing of student’s incorrect test answers on Georgia’s Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT).
However, missing among the key defendants is former Superintendent Beverly Hall. Dr. Hall’s trial will be delayed because she is undergoing stage IV breast cancer treatment. Prosecutors say Hall was the alleged mastermind behind the cheating scandal and that she and top-ranked staff are responsible for the reportedly creating a “culture of fear, intimidation, and retaliation”. Hall has denied the charges.
Explaining state evidence, prosecutors are looking to the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute to show jurors an established pattern of cheating activity occurring within Atlanta Public Schools. Details of the charges that prosecutors are looking to prove include: lying to state investigators, conspiring to cheat on federally mandated curriculum tests, influencing witnesses, making false statements under oath, and theft.
Six weeks and 400 prospective jurors later, the selected jurors sat in the Fulton County Superior courtroom Monday taking in the first wave of a deluge of information for the coming weeks. The opening statements mainly outlined the evidence connecting the accused educators to a cheating conspiracy. The jury is expected to hear testimony from current and former Atlanta Public School students, teachers, parents and administrators.
The community has watched and waited for several years for this trial to begin. Opening statements were heard, not only by people in a packed courtroom, but could also be viewed in a separate overflow courtroom by closed-circuit video feed. Even local news media, like WSB-TV made “Day One” of opening statements available in a live video stream on its website.
Monday the jury and community heard state prosecutors as they laid out examples of the accused educators’ opportunity and motive to maintain test cheating. They even talked about the motive of money as the reason behind the district wide cheating.
Prosecutor Fani Willis told jurors that the defendants, “illegally inflated test scores in an effort to create a false impression of academic success”. Achieving academic success is what brought the accolades and cash bonuses to the district and individual schools.
Several defense attorney’s presented their client’s cases during opening statements Monday. Some said planned state witnesses will be lying about their clients’ knowledge of cheating, and others talked about their clients’ professional careers in helping children.
According to an ABC NEW/ Associated Press report, attorney Sanford Allen Wallack, representing former teacher Dessa Curb, said prosecutors will try to tie every defendant together and asked jurors to listen for evidence against specific people. Wallack also said, “The state gave a very nice opening in the trial of Beverly Hall, but Dr. Hall’s not on trial.”
Others attorneys for the defense opted to give opening statements after prosecutors make their case.
Questionable statistical gains in the CRCT standardized test scores, reported by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, nearly six years ago, eventually lead then Georgia Governor Sonny Perdue to order an investigation. In all 185 teachers and administrators, as well as teachers at 44 APS Schools were investigated. The findings were released in 2011 report that shock Atlanta and the nation as the largest know case of district wide cheating. As a result, thousands of students were impacted by not receiving their true test scores. In March of 2013, 35 APS employees, including Beverly Hall were indicted. The12 defendants standing trial now are those who did not take offered plea deals.
On Monday, two juror asked to be excused from the trial, much to Judge Jerry Baxter’s frustration. Only one juror was actually dismissed leaving only 10 alternates. The trial is expected to last three months or longer.