Educators Sentenced To Prison For Test Cheating

By David Stokes

In what lasted more than two hours this morning in Day Two of sentencing, the majority of Atlanta educators found guilty of RICO statutes, along with other charges, were sentenced to prison today upon a jury finding them guilty of racketeering, false statements and false swearings in what has become not only the longest case in Georgia's history but also the nation's largest test cheating case/scandal involving elementary and middle school children.

Upon Atlanta-Fulton Co. Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter applying sentences to the educator-defendants, he decried several times in his sixth floor courtroom, "this is not a victimless crime," while admonishing defendants of "not accepting responsibility" of the offenses for which they were found to be guilty of, after jury deliberation, on April 1. Eight of the ten defendants were sentenced to prison time -- with the most jail time applied to executive level defendants of Atlanta Public Schools (APS) who served alongside with retired APS Superintendent Beverly Hall, Ph.D. (However, Dr. Hall had was being treated for breast cancer since last summer and appeared for court proceedings only twice. On March 2, furthermore, she died from the cancer complications.) During the morning sentencing proceedings, Baxter and defense attorneys, on occasion, debated back-and-forth on statements of yesterday's sentencing proceedings in which discussions of first offender status and other issues took place. Attorneys became agitated in today's proceedings as they believed Judge Baxter was going back on his word of certain imprimaturs and conditions that would be reserved for their respective defendants. While recommendations for their clients were entered, Baxter rendered harshest sentences for the executive level defendants -- SHARON DAVIS-WILLIAMS, TAMARA COTMAN and MICHAEL PITTS -- receiving 20 year sentences, to serve seven years, along with fines for each of $25,000 and 2,000 hours of community service. Other educators received lighter sentences: former testing coordinator DANA EVANS received five years prison time, to serve 1 year; teacher ANGELA WILLIAMSON received five years prison, to serve two years, as the judge exclaimed, "the evidence was overwhelming that she cheated"; TABEEKA JORDAN received five years, to serve two years, as well as a $5,000 fine and 1,000 community service hours, with Judge Baxter indicating that he "will consider" first offender status for her; DIANE BUCKNER-WEBB received five years prison time, with one year to serve, as well as a $2,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service; and THERESIA COPELAND received five years, with one year to serve, and will receive first offender status, as well as a $1,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service. Defendants DON BULLOCK AND PAMELA CLEVELAND opted to accept District Attorney Paul Howard's plea bargain of five years probation, as well as offer a formal apology to the students and community, in open court, of wrongdoing. Both Bullock and Cleveland rendered the apologies this morning. With Ms. Cleveland, however, she is to receive one year of home confinement during her probationary period, and both defendants have a $1,000 fine plus 1,000 hours of community service to be performed.

Upon the convicted being sentenced today in a packed courtroom of spectators and litigators, they will now have 30 days to appeal their convictions, according to Judge Baxter -- except for Bullock and Cleveland, as conditioned by accepting plea bargains -- and will be allowed to go home this evening and not back into Fulton Co. jail, as Judge Baxter agreed to grant appeal bond status during their sentencing. Upon being found guilty two weeks ago, on April 1, the defendants were immediately handcuffed and transported to jail as convicted felons. Additionally, in what was a "very last-minute attempt for (educators) to not go to jail," as D.A. Paul Howard said while speaking exclusively to this reporter, on Monday morning, April 13, prior to court sentencing, Howard made a final attempt for defendants to accept plea bargains on Sunday, April 12, at the county jail, but without success at that time. (Bullock and Cleveland changed their minds this morning and accepted plea deals.) Nonetheless, Howard indicated that the conditions of apologizing to the students, the community and waiving their right to appeal were applied to a plea deal that defendants did not accept until the 13th hour. "They have had numerous times to accept responsibility, yet, I wanted to give them one last opportunity to accept the responsibility in what were acts that basically harmed our children," D.A. Howard proclaimed during the exclusive telephone interview, on April 13. On several occasions today and Monday, Judge Baxter emphasized, "we wouldn't be here now if (the educators and administrators) had just accepted responsibility." Late last year, other APS educators-defendants indicted for RICO, false statements and other felonies accepted plea deals from D.A. Howard's prosecution team and avoided further prosecution.


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SCLC Stirs Shooting Controversy

BY DAVID STOKES

In what was supposed to be an Atlanta-based civil rights organization's support for an independent investigation into the recent death of a young metro area African-American male being fatally shot by a police officer, as well as announcing group strategy to urge dialogue between the police and the community to initiate communication in eliminating fatalities, attention has now turned toward the civil rights group itself as the state leader of SCLC has been suspended from office, The Inquirer exclusively learned (March 31), following his controversial remarks urging families of color to take advantage of their right to bear arms to protect themselves.

At downtown Atlanta's Centennial Olympic Park, on March 31, the Rev. Samuel Mosteller, Georgia president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), led a press conference with other activists, including representatives of the local NAACP and Rainbow PUSH Coalition, to stand in support of seeking police investigating the recent shooting of Nicholas Thomas, the 25 year old Cobb Co. father of a baby daughter who was shot and killed by Cobb police, on March 24, at his place of employment as officers attempted to serve a warrant for probation violation. Rev. Mosteller, the seven-year state chief of the civil rights group founded by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Dr. Ralph David Abernathy and other ministers over five decades ago, made general comments of growing "dissatisfaction" with nationwide police killings of young African-American men, in particular, that has grown since the 2012 gun fatality of 17 year old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. However, Rev. Mosteller stated that black Americans taking advantage of their Second Amendment rights would be appropriate as "a new tactic" should be placed with protecting one's self and family members, also, because "nonviolence has not worked," he said during the press conference last week. "It is time to think of new strategy to protect ourselves." Nonetheless, the fallout was fast and swift against Mosteller for the controversial remarks which ultimately challenges SCLC's principles of achieving social and economic justice by way of nonviolence. Now, Charles Steele, Jr., SCLC's national president/CEO (who did not attend the press conference) has "indefinitely" suspended the Georgia-born minister from his duties of the organization founded in 1957 due to his remarks, which led Rev. Mosteller, speaking exclusively to The Inquirer (on March 31), to state, "the punishment does not fit the action." Also, Mosteller indicated that when he asked President/CEO Steele and SCLC General Counsel Clyde Brooks, in a same evening telephone conversation whether he'd "done anything wrong with making the statements, they both said that I had not," within the conversation upon informing him of the suspension. Mosteller also said that he was told more dialogue was in store (the weekend of April 4 -- the weekend in which Dr. King's 47th anniversary of death will be commemorated) surrounding himself and the press conference, which could ultimately lead to formal board of directors action against Mosteller when SCLC has its annual national Spring board meeting on April 13. Additionally, some others in attendance were not in same step with Mosteller on urging individuals to take advantage of Second Amendment rights, including Janice L. Mathis, regional vice president/general counsel of Rainbow PUSH in Atlanta. "While Rainbow PUSH has a long-standing position that handguns should be registered and assault weapons banned, we believe that meaningful reforms to the criminal and civil justice systems will help deter excessive use of police force against unarmed men of color. While we understand the frustration that parents and advocates feel," she concluded in a statement, "Rainbow PUSH does not think armed conflict will resolve any issue nor do we think Rev. Mosteller meant to imply that armed conflict would resolve the police-community issue." (SCLC President/CEO Steele did not return a reporter's phone call seeking comment by presstime. However, national board chairman Bernard Lafayette stated to another media outlet, Mosteller's remarks "do not represent" what SCLC was founded on to accomplish its mission.) Nevertheless, as that incident continued to unfold, the Georgia Bureau of Investigations (GBI) announced late last week, on April 2, that it would open a formal inquiry into the death of Thomas of Cobb Co. After meetings with Cobb Co. and Smyrna law enforcement, on March 30 and two consecutive days after, Thomas' parents, Huey and Felicia, pronounced their appreciation for the statewide agency's investigation that will shed light into how and why Nicholas came to be fatally injured—as well as why—from the cop's gun. "We are very appreciative that the GBI took our concerns seriously to look into the shooting," Mrs. Thomas said. Nicholas, an employee of the Goodyear Tire Store on Cumberland Pkwy., adjacent to Cumberland Mall at I-285 and Cobb Parkway, was felled by bullets from Sgt. Ken Owens—who is now on paid administrative leave—upon he and another cop attempting to stop Thomas from fleeing as they approached the car Thomas was servicing. Mauwali Davis, Esq., the Thomas parents' lawyer, has indicated that after an initial meeting with Owens' superiors, "more questions arise from (those) answers," he stated to another media outlet last week. (Attorney Davis did not reply to a reporter's request for comment at presstime.) Additionally, greater concern was evident by the family and Davis upon learning Cobb police took hold of surveillance tape that would provide definitive detail of the incident in full.

Late last week, too, it was discovered that Sgt. Owens has had incidents himself as a former Cobb Co. police officer. While there, he was accused, by his wife, of battery/domestic violence, for which he was arrested. His resignation, in 1999, eventually led to him becoming a member of Smyrna's police force, in 2001. As for Rev. Mosteller, he will be inserted to attend sensitivity training while on the "indefinite" suspension, SCLC's Steele indicated to other news media outlets last week.


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MARTA Seeks Input On Expansion

MARTA will hold three public meetings in April for Connect 400, a major transit expansion project that is advancing to the next phase of planning under the federal environmental review process.

Community stakeholders along the Ga. 400 corridor are invited to provide feedback on the Locally Preferred Alternative (LPA), which is a heavy-rail transit extension of MARTA’s Red Line.

A formal Notice of Intent to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) has been filed as required by the Federal Transportation Administration and U.S. Department of Transportation. The project is ready to proceed to the next steps in project scoping – finalizing the EIS and project evaluation.

Once open, this high-capacity transit expansion will help relieve traffic congestion and reduce travel times in one of the fastest growing and most congested corridors in metro Atlanta. The proposed line would continue north from North Springs station, crossing to the west side of Ga. 400 south of Spalding Drive and crossing back to the east side of Ga. 400 north of the Chattahoochee River, terminating at Windward Parkway.

MARTA has held over 40 meetings, received more than 300 written and verbal comments and conducted two public opinion surveys to identify an alignment that is preferred by the community.

Public Meeting Schedule:

All meetings will be held from 6:30 pm to 8:00 pm and identical information will be provided to attendees. MARTA will receive public comments on the purpose and need for the project and the project alternatives until May 11, 2015. Comments should be sent to the GA 400 Transit Initiative Team at connect400@itsmarta.com. If language translations, signing services or other accommodations are needed, please contact Toni Thornton in MARTA’s Office of External Affairs at 404-848-5423 or tthornton@itsmarta.com.