Georgia Says

Atlanta cheating case setting legal precedent

by Columbus Ledger-Enquirer

Educators falsifying test scores in their own self-interest would certainly be considered an offense against children, parents, millions of dedicated educators and public education itself. But is it a crime?

Prosecutors in Atlanta will try to make the case that it is -- and that the accused are not just criminals, but racketeers.

A Fulton County Grand Jury on Friday named former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall and 34 others in a 65-count indictment that accuses defendants not only of cheating and theft, but also of a sustained conspiracy to cheat, to reward cheaters and accomplices, and to intimidate and/or punish whistleblowers.

They were charged under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) statute, modeled on the well-known federal law used to prosecute mobsters.

The RICO charges add intensity to what was already one of the highest-profile education scandals in memory.

That scandal began, as many big stories do, in relatively low-key fashion. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported in 2008 that one school in the Atlanta system had shown almost prohibitively unlikely improvements in test scores. Such suspicious numbers showed up in a dozen Atlanta schools the next year, and eventually in schools across the country.

A state investigation and report in 2011 laid out the elements of a system-wide and years-long conspiracy from which educators profited in the form of bonuses for improvements in test scores. ...

The key to the case will be conspiratorial intent. Prosecutors will have to show that defendants “knowingly and intentionally set out to defraud and engage in cheating,” said Jeffrey E. Grill, a Minnesota attorney and acknowledged RICO expert. The law, he said, exists to prosecute “people who don’t get their hands dirty,” but are directly involved in criminal activity.

It’s clear that prosecutors take this case with the utmost seriousness. So should everybody.

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