Defense, prosecutors preview school cheating cases

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ATLANTA (AP) — Prosecutors said Monday that 12 former Atlanta Public Schools educators and administrators cheated, lied and stole as part of a widespread but cleverly disguised conspiracy to inflate state test scores that affected thousands of students. Defense attorneys countered in their opening statements that their clients were committed educators but made enemies of former colleagues who are now lying about their involvement in cheating.

A dozen former administrators, principals, testing coordinators and teachers face racketeering charges, more than a year after prosecutors indicted 35 staffers in a cheating scandal that shocked the nation's educators and parents.

Prosecutor Fani Willis told jurors in Fulton County Superior Court that in the coming weeks, they will hear from current and former APS students, teachers, parents and administrators, describing a high-pressure culture created by former Superintendent Beverly Hall's focus on test results and the steps school district employees took to meet those targets. Willis said the result was a criminal enterprise within the school district, aiming to raise test scores to get bonuses and other perks for staff at all levels.

After opening statements finished, court adjourned for the day and testimony was set to begin Tuesday.

Hall is not among those included in this trial. A judge delayed her time in court after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She has long denied any knowledge of cheating.

Several defense attorneys who spoke after Willis said witnesses who planned to testify for the prosecution are lying about their clients' knowledge of cheating. Sanford Allen Wallack, an attorney representing former teacher Dessa Curb, said prosecutors will try to tie every defendant together and asked jurors to listen for evidence against specific people.

"The state gave a very nice opening in the trial of Beverly Hall," Wallack said. "But Dr. Hall's not on trial."

Prosecutors have agreed to plea deals with 21 other defendants included in the initial indictment. Willis said many will testify against their former colleagues, including top administrators who worked in Hall's central office and parents who were told "the results are the results" when they questioned better-than-expected performance by their kids.

Before walking jurors through a timeline of the accusations and a slew of education acronyms, Willis said children and parents will answer the question: "Why does this matter?"

She said the mother of a girl who began second grade in 2004 and exceeded expectations on the state exam a year later, even as she struggled in school and was diagnosed with a learning disability, tried to get her daughter extra help. But, Willis said, the girl's performance on the exam disqualified her.

"Parents, they had false impressions of what their children were doing," she said. "So at crucial and critical times, they lost their ability to help their children."

Several defense attorneys shared details of their clients' lives or careers, including professional honors or children's illnesses and former teacher Shani Robinson stood with her attorney in front of the jury box during her opening argument. Five attorneys opted to give opening statements after prosecutors make their case.

The trial is expected to last months. It took six weeks to seat a jury. One juror was excused before statements began Monday, leaving 10 alternates.

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