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    A Photographer’s View of the Atlanta Schools Test-Cheating Trial

    by Charles Borst posted April 20, 2015
    Atlanta-Schools Cheating

    Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter expresses his outrage to defense attorneys who claimed his sentencing of three former school administrators for the Atlanta school district was unfair. Judge Baxter declared they were “at the top of the chain” during sentencing on April 14 in Atlanta. –Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff photographer Kent D. Johnson was the courtroom photographer during the landmark trial in Atlanta that resulted in the conviction of 11 former Atlanta school employees for falsifying test results to collect bonuses or keep their jobs. Johnson shares his thoughts about covering the months-long trial and its impact on the community.

    Former testing coordinator Donald Bullock holds his head as his defense attorney Hurl Taylor stand and accepts a sentencing deal on Tuesday, April 14, 2015 in Atlanta. Bullock was sentenced to 5 years probation, 6 months of weekends in jail, $5000 fine and 1500 hours of community service. All but one of 10 former Atlanta public school educators convicted in a widespread conspiracy to inflate student scores on standardized tests were sentenced to jail time Tuesday, and the judge called the cheating scandal "the sickest thing that's ever happened in this town."  (Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)

    Former testing coordinator Donald Bullock holds his head as his defense attorney, Hurl Taylor, accepts a sentencing deal on April 14 in Atlanta. Bullock was sentenced to 5 years probation, 6 months of weekends in jail, a $5,000 fine, and 1,500 hours of community service. All but one of 10 former Atlanta public school educators convicted in a widespread conspiracy to inflate student scores on standardized tests were sentenced to jail time.  Another defendant convicted in the case will be sentenced later this year. –Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    I’d just returned from lunch with couple of the defense attorneys on April 1, and as we turned the corner, I remember my heart racing as I saw the deputies gathered outside courtroom 1C in the Fulton County Courthouse. The bailiff had already told me there would be an increased presence when a verdict was reached. We got back into the courtroom and waited while the defendants, and their attorneys, prosecutors, members of the media, and the public gathered.

    As Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter came into the courtroom, I activated a remote camera that he had allowed me to mount just over the witness stand.

    It took Judge Baxter a total of 5 1/2 minutes to read the verdicts that would change lives.

    Defense attorney Angela Johnson holds her hand on her client, former Atlanta public school teacher Pamela Cleveland, as she makes a statement in court before her sentencing on Tuesday, April 14, 2015 in Atlanta. Cleveland was sentenced to 5 years, with 1 year of home confinement and curfew.  All but one of 10 former Atlanta public school educators convicted in a widespread conspiracy to inflate student scores on standardized tests were sentenced to jail time Tuesday. Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter called the cheating scandal "the sickest thing that's ever happened in this town."  (Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)

    Defense attorney Angela Johnson braces her client, former Dunbar Elementary School teacher Pamela Cleveland, as she makes a statement in court before her sentencing on April 14 in Atlanta. Cleveland was sentenced to 5 years probation, with 1 year of home confinement and curfew.  –Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    Former APS Dunbar Elementary teacher Pamela Cleveland listens to her mother, Rochelle Perrin, testify on her behalf during the sentencing of 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial in Fulton County Superior Court, Monday April 13 2015, in Atlanta. Character witnesses are pleading for leniency as Judge Jerry Baxter prepares to sentence most of the former Atlanta educators convicted in a widespread conspiracy to cheat on state tests. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

    Former Dunbar Elementary School teacher Pamela Cleveland listens to her mother, Rochelle Perrin, testify on her behalf as a character witness during sentencing hearings for the convicted school employees. Cleveland was one of 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta school district test-cheating trial in Fulton County Superior Court. -Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    As the verdicts rolled out, I was struck by the lack of emotion on most of the defendants’ faces, though I believe they were stunned by the outcome.

    I was originally assigned to the Atlanta case in May 2013, for the first court hearings for the 35 educators and administrators originally indicted earlier that spring. We’d established early on that the Atlanta Journal-Constitution was going to provide the pool still photography for the coverage. I took on the primary role in the court coverage, and was the lone photojournalist to cover most of the trial from start to finish.

    Former APS Dobbs Elementary teacher Dessa Curb sits in court during sentencing of 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial before Judge Jerry Baxter in Fulton County Superior Court, Monday April 13, 2015. Curb a teacher, was acquitted of all charges by the jury.  (Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

    Former Dobbs Elementary School teacher Dessa Curb listens during sentencing of 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta school test-cheating trial. Ms. Curb was acquitted of all charges by the jury. -Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    Fulton County Senior Asst. DA Clint Rucker talks with another member of the prosecution team during witness statements for the defendants during sentencing of 10 of the 11 defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial, before Judge Jerry Baxter in Fulton County Superior Court, Monday, April 13, 2015. Character witnesses are pleading for leniency as Baxter prepares to sentence most of the former Atlanta educators convicted in a widespread conspiracy to cheat on state tests. (Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP, Pool)

    Fulton County Senior Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker talks with another member of the prosecution team during witness statements for the defendants during sentencing proceedings for defendants convicted of racketeering and other charges in the Atlanta test-cheating trial. -Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    Fulton County Senior Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker, right, hugs Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard after a jury read guilty verdicts in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial, Wednesday, April 1, 2015, in Atlanta. Eleven former Atlanta Public Schools educators accused of participating in a test cheating conspiracy that drew nationwide attention were convicted Wednesday of racketeering charges.  (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

    Fulton County Senior Assistant District Attorney Clint Rucker, right, hugs Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard after a jury read guilty verdicts for 11 defendants in the test-cheating trial. -Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    During the course of the trial, I decided that I’d shoot as many of the personalities daily so we could have a historical record. One of the defendants, Shani Robinson, was pregnant, and we could tell her progress over the months from August to April (she delivered a son on April 11).

    I attended about 70 of the 83 or 84 days of trial, including testimony, jury deliberations, the verdicts and two days of sentencing. In all, I shot nearly 23,500 photos.

    A Fulton Sheriff's Deputy handcuffs former Atlanta Public Schools school research team director Sharon Davis Williams, center, after a jury found her guilty in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial, Wednesday, April 1, 2015, in Atlanta. Williams and 10 other former Atlanta Public Schools educators accused of participating in a test cheating conspiracy that drew nationwide attention were convicted Wednesday of racketeering charges. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

    A Fulton County Sheriff’s Deputy handcuffs former Atlanta’s Public Schools school research team director Sharon Davis Williams, center, after a jury found her guilty in the school district’s test-cheating trial. –Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    Former Atlanta Public Schools school research team director Tamara Cotman, center, is led to a holding cell after a jury found her guilty in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial, Wednesday, April 1, 2015, in Atlanta. Cotman and 10 other former Atlanta Public Schools educators accused of participating in a test cheating conspiracy that drew nationwide attention were convicted Wednesday of racketeering charges. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

    Former Atlanta Public Schools school research team co-director Tamara Cotman, center, is led to a holding cell after a jury found her guilty in the test-cheating trial. -Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    Former Deerwood Academy assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan is led to a holding cell after a jury found her guilty in the Atlanta Public Schools test-cheating trial, Wednesday, April 1, 2015, in Atlanta. Jordan and 10 other former Atlanta Public Schools educators accused of participating in a test cheating conspiracy that drew nationwide attention were convicted Wednesday of racketeering charges. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Kent D. Johnson, Pool)

    Former Deerwood Academy assistant principal Tabeeka Jordan is led to a holding cell after a jury found her guilty in the test-cheating trial. -Kent D. Johnson/Atlanta Journal-Constitution

    I found myself conflicted over how educators entrusted to teach kids, not just their school lessons but also to be role models of behavior, could do what they were accused of. My mother was a career educator, teaching middle school for 40 years. Several other family members and friends are educators as well.

    I don’t think anyone wanted career educators jailed. The district attorney said as much in the beginning and at the conclusion of the trial. As a parent, however, I found myself wondering about the kids who didn’t get the help they needed to succeed. Early on, some folks tried to characterize this as a racial prosecution, saying that they didn’t believe poor black kids could learn at the rates depicted in the test scores. I don’t buy that argument.

    I think the most troubling thing for me was that the educational system was being treated more like a factory. Get ‘em in, push ‘em out.

    031915 APS closing third

    Atlanta Journal-Constitution staff photographer Kent D. Johnson, in courtroom 1C in the Fulton County Courthouse in Atlanta. –Courtesy Kent D. Johnson

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