Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal: Remaining defendants make deals to avoid prison

It has been a cloud hanging over the Atlanta Public Schools for more than a decade. Finally, in a startling development, the APS cheating scandal came to a close on Tuesday. 

The remaining 5 defendants appeared before the original judge to make a deal to avoid prison. 

The defendants, who had been asking for a new trial, agreed to admit their guilt in exchange for no prison time. 

One of the defendants even cried as she apologized. 

"So, this was an agreement that the DA have negotiated with those defendants?" retired Judge Jerry Baxter questioned.  

The defendants were also required to make public apologies for their roles in what happened. 

"I take full responsibility, and I apologize from the bottom of my heart," testing coordinator Theresia Copeland said fighting back tears. One-by-one, the educator's confessed, teacher Diane Buckner Webb. 

"I apologize to the children of APS," the former educator proclaimed. 

Teacher Shani Robinson shared regret as well. 

"I realized I damaged the public trust in education," Robinson confessed.  

Judge Baxter pressed former executive regional directors Michael Pitts and Sharon Davis Williams harder than the others, asking why it happened. 

"Was it Beverly Hall putting tremendous pressure on you?" Judge Baxter asked.  

Hall was the superintendent at the time, she died before her trial date. 

In the end, the judge said it is the jurors in the case to whom he is most grateful for their 9 months of service 

"They were diligent. They worked hard, they got along. They never were late. It was really amazing," the judge proclaimed. 

The deal requires the five educators to complete thousands of hours of community service, pay fines and agree to waive their right to appeal the sentence. 

What happened?

The Atlanta Public Schools (APS) cheating scandal, one of the largest in U.S. history, involved widespread cheating on standardized tests by educators in the APS district. The scandal came to light in 2009 and centered around allegations that teachers and administrators altered students' test answers to improve scores on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests (CRCT).

Concerns about irregularities in test scores were raised in 2008 after a report by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution highlighted statistically improbable improvements in test scores.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) conducted an investigation, uncovering evidence of cheating in several schools.

In July 2011, a report by special investigators appointed by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue confirmed that cheating occurred in at least 44 schools.

The report implicated 178 educators, including 38 principals, in the scandal.

In 2013, 35 APS educators were indicted on charges including racketeering, making false statements, and influencing witnesses.

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The remaining defendants in the Atlanta Public School cheating case appear before a Fulton County judge on June 25, 2024.  (FOX 5)

In 2015, a jury found 11 of the educators guilty of racketeering and other charges, leading to prison sentences for several of them.

Who was convicted?

Those convicted included administrators, testing coordinators, teachers, and an assistant principal. They received the following sentences:

  • Donald Bullock, former testing coordinator: Weekends in jail for 6 months, $5,000 fine, 5 years of probation and 1,500 hours of community service.
  • Sharon Davis-Williams, Tamara Cotman, and Michael Pitts: 20 years in prison, to serve seven, $25,000 fine and 2,000 hours of community service. Sentences for Cotman, Pitts and Davis-Williams were later reduced from 7 to 3 years and fines to $10,000.
  • Dana Evans: 5 years in prison, one to serve, and 1,000 hours of community service.
  • Angela Williamson and Tabeeka Jordan, former Deerwood Academy assistant principal: 5 years in prison, two to serve, $5,000 fine and 1,500 hours of community service.
  • Diane Buckner-Webb, former Dunbar Elementary teacher: 5 years in prison, one to serve, $1,000 fine, 1,000 hours in community service and first offender treatment.
  • Theresia Copeland, former Benteen Elementary testing coordinator: 5 years in prison, one to serve, $1,000 fine and 1,000 hours of community service.
  • Pamela Cleveland, former Dunbar Elementary teacher: 5 years' probation, home confinement for a year from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and community service.
  • Shani Robinson, former first-grade Dunbar Elementary teacher: one year in prison, 4 years of probation, $1,000 fine, 1,000 hours of community service.

One teacher, Dessa Curb, was found not guilty on all charges. 


Defendants file appeals

Nine of the 11 educators convicted filed appeals. Two of those nine, Tamara Cotman Johnson and Angela Williamson, lost their appeal and went to prison in 2018.

Six of the former educators appeared in court in May to ask Judge Baxter and the District Attorney to show compassion. Community leaders also appeared on behalf of the defendants, pointing out that they are mothers, parents, and individuals who lost their homes, teaching certificates, pensions, and abilities to work in their chosen field.  Additionally, one of the remaining defendants was diagnosed with cancer.

"It's been 11 years; this is costing taxpayers millions of dollars to resolve this case. Please ensure there is some resolution where these teachers do not have to go to prison," clergyman James Woodall said. 

Defendants make deals to avoid prison

On Tuesday, the remaining defendants had their sentences reduced to probation in exchange for agreeing to admit that the evidence presented to the jury was sufficient to sustain the jury's verdicts against them. Each of the remaining defendants also agreed to read an apology to the children of Atlanta in court. 

Diane Buckner-Webb:

I took precious time to analyze my heart and what took place. I reflected on the things I could have done differently and discovered ways to gain my integrity in society. Despite my current illness, I continue to work hard as a productive member of society with Islam. Again, I apologize to those children I hurt directly or indirectly with my actions through the testing. As I truly love my career as an educator, it meant the world to impart knowledge upon every student that entered my classroom, and it sincerely … me that it has to end this life.

Sharon Davis Williams:

Although I was not in the classroom where the cheating occurred, it goes without saying that I was responsible for ensuring the integrity of schools under my supervision, which included work processes and measures that were in place to prevent the occurrence of illicit behavior of staff under my supervision. My confidence in the accountability procedures that I followed was misplaced. I deeply regret the impact of this situation on the school, the broader community, including staff, parents, and most importantly, the children. I chose urban education despite or more candidly because of the difficulties believing that all children deserve high quality education regardless of their individual circumstance. My entire career has been devoted, dedicated to children and the low-income community.

My greatest remorse is that I failed to protect the very children I dedicated my life to serve. And I apologize, and I take full responsibility. I understand the need to make amends, and I will continue to work tirelessly in my community. 

Michael Pitts:

I take full responsibility for the circumstances that brings us here today.

During the court proceedings, it was stated that I never told anyone to cheat. However, I should have known cheating was occurring. But I was not diligent enough, nor did I have the correct safe path to protect my students from harm. I sincerely apologize to not only the students under my supervision, but all the students in Atlanta Public Schools.

I worked in the Memphis City School District for 20 years where I was deemed a distinguished teacher and a distinguished professor. My entire career was dedicated to inner city schools. I believe all children could learn at high levels, no matter what their zip code. I accepted the rules as a director of the letter believing that I could utilize my expertise to help more students in that capacity. 

I worked here for 12 years. And I always said to myself, only fools fool themselves. Which this statement goes directly to the heart of truth. If you begin to screw your baseline, you will never get a true picture of student experience progress. In some ways, I was not true to my own mantra.

I believe that the lack of accountability will cause a failure in our school system.

However, it has never been my style to scare people into doing their job. I've always thought to hold myself accountable to all people I have served. I would not shy away from this accountable moment either. Keeping the … my wife and did harm to my children and for that, I deeply apologize. I pray that they have recovered fully from the disservice and any disadvantages they endured during my tenure.

I recently wrote a book … from this experience and the lessons I learned from it. I have distributed many copies to our school community freely. My hope is that the future educators can learn from both our successes and our mistakes to make for a brighter future for our youth. 

I know children can learn. You have to teach them. We can't run from accountability, but we cannot be oppressive. There were words that I never knew. Thank you.

Note: Some words were omitted because they could not be understood in the recording. 

Shani Robinson:

To the children of Atlanta, I am writing this letter as my personal apology to the students in Atlanta Public Schools and to take full responsibility for my actions in this case. As a former teacher, it was my duty to ensure a high ethical standard. I am deeply remorseful for any testing irregularities that occurred on my students' 2009 CRCT test. I apologize for any harm my involvement in this case may have caused you. I realized that this situation has damaged public trust placed in educators.

Since my conviction, I have been dedicated to rebuilding that trust and will continue to do so moving forward. Upon leaving the field of education, I served as a volunteer for a nonprofit in which I taught high school students career exploration and job readiness skills. As a member of a local community organization, I also work with high school girls transitioning into adulthood, teaching them life skills. I hope that you will consider my apology and the efforts that I have put into my community. Thank you.


Atlanta Public schools has implemented numerous reforms to restore integrity to its testing processes and rebuild trust within the community since the scandal.