The Real Lesson of the APS Cheating Scandal

Mug shots of the educators indicted and convicted in the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal. (Photo: WSB-TV Atlanta)

Mug shots of the educators indicted and convicted in the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal.
(Photo: WSB-TV Atlanta)

Writing for The Root, the Burton Wire‘s founder & editor-in-chief Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D. explores the complexity of the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal in which 12 educators were convicted of racketeering and other crimes under the RICO law, which was created to convict mafia figures. Burton also discusses the racial dynamics of having all black defendants in the courtroom with black attorneys and the way in which Judge Jerry Baxter, who is white, treated the attorneys. Read an excerpt from the post below:


The educators were indicted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, which refers to the prosecution and defense of individuals who engage in organized crime. In 1970 Congress passed the RICO Act in an effort to combat Mafia groups. APS educators were arrested under the same law used to indict John Gotti and Paul Castellano—former bosses of the Gambino crime family—and Anthony Corallo, former boss of the Lucchese crime family.

The APS scandal made national headlines because of the scope of the cheating and the use of the RICO Act against a group of educators, which many felt was an overreach. The indictments led to 21 plea deals—which included a mix of probation, fines and community service—and 12 defendants were ordered to trial. Only one defendant, Dessa Curb, was acquitted of all charges against her. Hall, who was too ill to stand trial, passed away in March of cancer.

After being convicted on April 1 and led out of court in handcuffs, two of the defendants who stood trial, Donald Bullock and Pamela Cleveland, accepted plea deals with some confinement (house arrest and weekend jail), a $1,000 fine and community service, while the others, who refused the plea deal, were sentenced to five to 20 years. They also received fines ranging from $5,000 to $25,000 and community service ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 hours.

The three top administrators—Tamara Cotman, Sharon Davis-Williams and Michael Pitts—received the stiffest sentences. Each of them received a 20-year sentence and is expected to serve seven years in prison and 13 on probation, as well as pay $25,000 in fines and do 2,000 hours of community service. Another defendant, who just gave birth to a child, will be sentenced in August.

Folks have been engaged in heated discussions online and offline about the trial, with some saying that the convicted educators got what they deserved, and others noting the overzealous prosecution of the defendants—who are all African American—and the copious amount of attention being paid to the educators as opposed to the students affected by their cheating.

I fall somewhere in between, wholeheartedly agreeing that the educators who were convicted of cheating should be punished, but recoiling at the use of the RICO Act to charge and convict them. As an educator, I find it hard to support prosecuting educators under a law devised to protect citizens against the Mafia, a law that seems to have become a catchall for cases that are not easily proved.

Cheating students out of an education is criminal but not “mafioso criminal.” The fact that many of the defendants were denied first-offender status is as problematic as being indicted under the same act as the late John Gotti. My displeasure with the sentence also has to do with the racial dynamics on full display in the courtroom during the sentencing hearing…


Read the article in its entirety at The Root.

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