"This thing was pervasive. It's like the sickest thing that's ever happened to this town."
Apparently without apologies to Gen. Sherman, thus did Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter summarize the rationale for prison terms, in some cases covering multiple years, for some of the former educators convicted of racketeering in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating trial.
If you thought one of the more remarkable spectacles in Atlanta's history couldn't possibly become any more circus-like, you should have tuned in to Tuesday's sentencing hearing. The exchanges between Baxter and the defense teams were heated at times. Only two of the 11 defendants found guilty accepted sentencing deals offered by prosecutors. The other eight appeared incredulous at being asked to acknowledge responsibility for what has been called the worst cheating scandal in U.S. history -- and being ordered to serve prison time and pay relatively large fines. (One other defendant, who recently gave birth, will be sentenced in August.)
Baxter's reaction to their incredulity was reminiscent of the righteous indignation that spurred former Gov. Sonny Perdue to order a full investigation into the cheating almost five years ago. Some of Baxter's most impassioned exclamations:
- "Yesterday I said to everybody, this is the time to search your soul ... and the punishment wouldn't be so severe. It was (about) taking responsibility, and no one is taking any responsibility that I can see."
- "I don't want an apology. I want this community, and these kids that were shortchanged, to have an apology."
- To one defendant whose lawyer said she wanted to be able to raise her kids: "Why didn't she think about that 18 months ago (when she could have accepted a plea deal)?"
- "(The defendant) didn't need to be taken away from her kids. She didn't need all this. She could have just accepted responsibility. The evidence (presented at trial) was overwhelming."
- "This was not victimless crime that was going on in this city ... These kids had no chance to begin with ... the only chance they had was school," which failed them.
- "These kids can't read. ... I look at these scores (they got in middle school) and they are totally bogus."
- "When you can't read, you're passed on and passed on. There are (cheating) victims that are in the jail, kids."
In the end, three former administrators each received 20-year sentences, with seven years to be served and the rest spent on probation; $25,000 fines; and 2,000 hours of community service. A principal will serve one year in prison, plus 1,000 hours of community service. Two teachers were sentenced to two years in prison, a $5,000 fine and 1,500 hours of community service -- when a lawyer for one of them started to ask how she was supposed to come up with $5,000 when she can't work, Baxter cut him off with an unsympathetic "I don't know."
Two other teachers got one year in prison, a $1,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service. Another teacher who read an apology to the community and admitted her guilt as part of the sentencing deal got one year of home confinement plus a $1,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service. The other teacher who struck a deal with prosecutors will spend his weekends in jail for six months, pay a $5,000 fine and perform 1,500 hours of community service.
That's a total of 28 years in prison, some $93,000 in fines and 14,500 hours of community service for those 10, with the 11th sentence still to come.
The rejections by eight defendants of unusual post-conviction sentencing deals appeared to be intended to preserve their right to appeal, which they would have waived as part of the deals. Some of them will have appeal bond hearings to try to stay out of jail while their appeals proceed. But it's hard to escape the fact that, if those fail, they could spend two years or more in prison while they make their appeals -- and yet, they could have been free much sooner under the deals they were offered. I also suspect a great deal of whatever public sympathy they might have enjoyed will have evaporated after the sentencing hearing.
But it is, of course, their right to appeal. And so it looks like we won't be rid of this saga anytime soon.
(Note: This post has been updated throughout with additional details.)