By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Eight former Atlanta public school educators were ordered on Tuesday to serve between one and seven years in prison for their convictions on racketeering charges in one of the nation's largest test-cheating scandals.
The lengthy prison sentences, unusual for educators, contrasted to the treatment of two defendants in the case also found guilty by a jury this month. Both accepted responsibility under a deal with prosecutors that spared them significant time behind bars.
Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter gave three of the 11 educators convicted in the scandal 20-year sentences, with seven years to be served in prison and the rest on probation.
Five educators received five-year sentences, with two ordered to serve two years in prison and three to serve one year.
"There were thousands of children that were harmed in this thing," Baxter said during a rancorous hearing.
"It’s like the sickest thing that's ever happened to this town," he later said of the scandal that raised national alarm about high-stakes testing.
Two convicted educators, who apologized in court under agreements with prosecutors, received lighter punishments.
One must serve six months of weekends in jail and five years of probation. The other avoided jail and was sentenced to five years probation, with one year of an evening home curfew.
"It was unjust," said Benjamin Davis, attorney for one of the three administrators who received the harshest sentences. "The judge got upset and very emotional."
PLEA DEALS URGED
Baxter urged the defendants on Monday to consider plea deals requiring them to accept responsibility in exchange for limited prison time. But they would have given up rights to appeal, a sticking point.
Many, if not all, of the eight educators facing prison will appeal, their attorneys said.
"It was a real tragedy that you would trade seven years in prison, when the sentence could have been weekends in jail," Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard told reporters.
Cheating was rampant throughout the Atlanta school district in 2009, state investigators found, prompting schools nationwide to enact measures guarding against cheating.
Erasing wrong answers was part of the cheating by the educators under pressure to meet test targets, prosecutors said during a nearly six-month trial.
Student achievement helped the former principals, teachers and administrators to secure promotions and cash bonuses.
A Georgia grand jury in 2013 roiled the community by indicting 35 Atlanta educators, including former school Superintendent Beverly Hall, on conspiracy and other charges.
Twelve of the educators went on trial, and 11 were convicted. Hall died of breast cancer this year.
The last guilty educator is due to be sentenced in August. Those sentenced on Tuesday, jailed since their convictions on April 1, were expected to be released pending appeal.
While cheating has been reported in 40 states and Washington, D.C., in recent years, educators do not usually serve prison time, according to Bob Schaeffer, education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit known as FairTest.
Parent Colleen Bates said her daughter had to repeat two grades after her test scores were inflated during the scandal.
"I have no pity for what happened today," Bates said.
Bernice King, daughter of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., called the seven-year sentences "stiff" for nonviolent offenders, but she noted the defendants had another option. She had asked the judge to spare the educators prison time.
King will help to lead a nonprofit academy, organized by the district attorney's office, offering remedial help for students affected by the cheating.
"The blood is on our hands," she said, urging community members to guard against the pressures created by high-stakes testing. "We have not done enough."
(Reporting by David Beasley; Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Lisa Lambert and Doina Chiacu)