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Jurors found eleven former Atlanta public school employees guilty of racketeering and other charges on Wednesday. The educators, and 21 others who took plea bargains before the trial, were accused of altering answers and coaching students to change answers on standardized tests.
The cheating scandal encompassed 44 Atlanta public schools, with teachers, principals, and administrators under pressure to meet test score targets to get promotions and cash bonuses. The convicted educators could face up to 20 years in prison.
The Atlanta teachers, testing coordinators, and administrators were convicted of racketeering under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corruption Organizations Act (RICO). RICO was part of the Organized Crime Control Act of 1970, and was aimed at curtailing criminal organizations like the Mafia using legitimate businesses as fronts for criminal activity.
Specifically, RICO prohibits the use of an enterprise to engage in certain criminal activities, and an enterprise is broadly defined as "any individual, partnership, corporation, association, or other legal entity, and any union or group of individuals associated in fact although not a legal entity." In this case, prosecutors identified the school system as the enterprise, with educators using the schools and the testing processes to commit fraud.
Prosecutors said the pressure to improve test scores by any means necessary came from the top, starting with former Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent Beverly Hall. According to The New York Times, an investigation into allegations of cheating revealed that Dr. Hall and her staff "created a culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation" that allowed "cheating -- at all levels -- to go unchecked for years."
The cheating spanned several years, and came to light when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution began publishing a series of stories trying to uncover how Atlanta students had made dramatic improvements on standardized test scores.
All 11 guilty educators were led from the courtroom in handcuffs and will remain in jail until they are sentenced.
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