Atlanta educators convicted in cheating scandal say they're innocent

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Story highlights

  • Atlanta educators who were convicted in a cheating scandal vow to appeal
  • Some sentenced to prison turned down a deal to lighten their sentences
  • Convicted administrator: "I was not willing to compromise my integrity and say I did something I did not do"

(CNN)Educators sentenced to prison in the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal proclaimed their innocence Friday.

Eight administrators and teachers were given prison terms ranging from one to seven years Tuesday, plus fines and community service. They could have lightened their sentences by admitting guilt and waiving their right to appeal.
"I didn't take the deal because I'm innocent," Diane Buckner-Webb, a former elementary teacher sentenced to a year in prison plus four years of probation, said at a news conference at which seven spoke. "I didn't cheat. I'm not a racketeer."
    They were all convicted April 1 of crimes including the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Prosecutors said they were involved in an effort to raise tests scores at struggling schools by erasing wrong answers and putting in correct answers.
    Dana Evans, a former principal sentenced to a year in prison and four years of probation, said the five-month trial and the surprisingly heavy sentences were "an overwhelming burden."
    She said she was in handcuffs with other convicted defendants when her lawyer told her about the sentencing deal prosecutors offered. Evans said she didn't have a chance to talk about it with her family.
    "Your lawyer says, 'This is how you can get unshackled,'" Evans said. "But I couldn't, I just couldn't."
    Educators sentenced in Atlanta school cheating scandal
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    Educators sentenced in Atlanta school cheating scandal 02:38
    Tamara Cotman said she didn't want to give up her constitutional right to appeal. And Cotman said she didn't commit a crime.
    "I was not willing to compromise my integrity and say I did something I did not do," she said.
    Cotman said she'll serve her time if the appeal is not successful. She and fellow school reform team executive directors Michael Pitts and Sharon Davis-Williams received the toughest sentences: Seven years to serve, 13 years of probation, 2,000 hours of community service and a $25,000 fine.
    "When you're truly innocent, there's things you'll willing to stand in front of the train for," she said. "I'm not afraid because the truth will prevail."
    At sentencing, Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter appeared angry that the defendants didn't take responsibility.
    "Everybody knew cheating was going on and your client promoted it," Baxter said to an attorney representing one defendant.
    "This is the time to search your soul," Baxter said. "It's just taking responsibility. ... No one has taken responsibility that I can see."
    The defendants are out of jail on bond while the cases are appealed.
    Prosecutors said the cheating is believed to date back to 2001, when scores on statewide aptitude tests improved greatly, according to a 2013 indictment. The indictment also states that for at least four years, between 2005 and 2009, test answers were altered, fabricated or falsely certified.
    Michael Bowers, a former Georgia attorney general who investigated the cheating scandal, said in 2013 that there were "cheating parties," erasures in and out of classrooms, and teachers were told to make changes to student answers on tests.
    Bowers said he heard that educators cheated out of pride, to earn bonuses, to enhance their careers or to keep their jobs.
    But Keith Adams, the lawyer for Buckner-Webb, said she never got "a penny" in bonuses. He said Buckner-Webb worked with second-graders and that the school didn't even meet its targets.
    Adams said people keep asking why the educators didn't take the sentencing deal. "The appropriate question is what is the appropriate punishment," he said. "Prison? Prison is not appropriate for any of these educators based on what they were convicted of."
    George Lawson, the lawyer for Pitts, wondered why trials were held at all. A similar cheating scandal occurred in Dougherty County in south Georgia, he said, but no criminal trial was held there.
    Of 35 Atlanta educators indicted in 2013, more than 20 took a plea deal. Some of them testified against the dozen educators who pleaded not guilty and stood trial.
    Twelve educators went on trial five months ago. Eleven were convicted and one was acquitted.
    Of those 11, two defendants took the deal for lighter sentences -- a year of home confinement for one and six months in jail, to be served on weekends, for the other. A woman who was giving birth when sentences were handed down will be sentenced later.
    The cheating allegedly involved the top educator in the district, ex-Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall.
    Hall said she was innocent. Suffering from cancer, she died before she could stand trial.