In another embarrassing blow to Atlanta public schools, nearly three dozen former educators, including the ex-superintendent, were indicted Friday in one of the nation's largest test cheating scandals.
Former Superintendent Beverly Hall faced charges including racketeering, false statements and theft because prosecutors said some of the bonuses she received were tied to falsified scores.
Hall retired just days before a state probe was released in 2011. She has long denied knowing about the cheating or ordering it.
During a news conference Friday, Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard provided examples of two students who demonstrated "the plight of many children" in the Atlanta school system. He described a third-grader who failed a benchmark exam and received the worst score in her reading class in 2006. The girl was held back, yet when she took a separate assessment test not long after, she passed with flying colors.
Howard said the girl's mother, Justina Collins, knew something was awry, but was told by school officials that the child simply was a good test-taker. The girl is now in ninth grade, reading at a fifth-grade level.
"I have a 15-year-old now who is behind in achieving her goal of becoming what she wants to be when she graduates. It's been hard trying to help her catch up," Collins said.
The criminal investigation lasted 21 months and the allegations date back to 2005. In addition to Hall, 34 people were indicted: four high-level administrators, six principals; two assistant principals; six testing coordinators; 14 teachers; a school improvement specialist and a school secretary.
All of the people named in the indictment face conspiracy charges. Other charges in the 65-count indictment include false statements and writings, false swearing, theft and influencing witnesses.
The investigation involved at least 50 schools as well as hundreds of interviews with school administrators, staff, parents and students. The district has about 50,000 students.
Howard would not directly answer a question about whether Hall led the conspiracy.
"What we're saying is that without her, this conspiracy could not have taken place," he said. "It would not have taken place if her actions had not made that possible."
Hall faces up to 45 years in prison, Howard said.
Richard Deane, an attorney for Hall, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.
The tests were the key measure the state used to determine whether it met the federal No Child Left Behind law. Schools with good test scores get extra federal dollars to spend in the classroom or on teacher bonuses.
It wasn't immediately clear how much bonus money Hall received. Howard did not say and the amount wasn't mentioned in the indictment.
"Those results were caused by cheating. ... And the money that she received, we are alleging that money was ill-gotten," Howard said.
The previous state investigation in 2011 found cheating by nearly 180 educators in 44 Atlanta schools. Educators gave answers to students or changed answers on tests after they were turned in, investigators said. Teachers who tried to report it faced retaliation, creating a culture of "fear and intimidation" in the district.
State schools Superintendent John Barge said last year he believed the state's new accountability system would remove the pressure to cheat on standardized tests because it won't be the sole way the state determines student growth. The pressure was part of what some educators in Atlanta Public Schools blamed for their cheating.
Hall served as superintendent for more than a decade, which is rare for an urban schools chief. She was named Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009 and credited with raising student test scores and graduation rates, particularly among the district's poor and minority students. But the award quickly lost its luster as her district became mired in the scandal.
In a video message to schools staff before she retired, Hall warned that the state investigation launched by former Gov. Sonny Perdue would likely reveal "alarming" behavior.
"It's become increasingly clear that a segment of our staff chose to violate the trust that was placed in them," Hall said. "There is simply no excuse for unethical behavior and no room in this district for unethical conduct. I am confident that aggressive, swift action will be taken against anyone who believed so little in our students and in our system of support that they turned to dishonesty as the only option."
The cheating came to light after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that some scores were statistically improbable.
Most of the 178 educators named in the special investigators' report in 2011 resigned, retired, did not have their contracts renewed or appealed their dismissals and lost. Twenty-one educators have been reinstated and three await hearings to appeal their dismissals, said Atlanta Public Schools spokesman Stephen Alford.
Superintendent Erroll Davis said the district was focused on nurturing an ethical environment, providing quality education and supporting the employees who were not implicated.
"I know that our children will succeed when the adults around them work hard, work together, and do so with integrity," he said in a statement.
The Georgia Professional Standards Commission is responsible for licensing teachers and has been going through the complaints against teachers, said commission executive secretary Kelly Henson. Of the 159 cases the commission has reviewed, 44 resulted in license revocations, 100 got two-year suspensions and nine were suspended for less than two years, Henson said. No action was taken against six of the educators.