Teachers get what they deserve, but Trial still has the stink of injustice.

The APS teaching scandal is unprecedented. The pervasiveness and prevalence of the cheating—along with its cover-up of the practice—makes for a startling story that is certain to make a really great movie one day. The actions of the administrators are deplorable—making it easy for many to easily digest the maximum of 20 years that several of the defendants received Tuesday morning. While the participants are deemed guilty in their involvement, the excessive punishments they have received does lend credence to the possibility that they have been dealt an injustice.

Let this be understood: this was a complete racket. While many are sympathetic to the high-stakes circumstances that make school officials compelled to skew test scores, the manner in which they achieved their objectives were nothing short of reprehensible and criminal. They operated with impunity on a wide-scale, all while maximizing profits for themselves at the expense of students. It is not like these teachers acted under a pressure to improve the lives of children whose futures are very much at stake due to the importance of test scores. Their actions seemed to depart from their personal career objectives than out of the interests in the people whom they serve. And just as we would demand city officials to be accountable for willingly distorting and conspiring to conceal information at the detriment of its citizens, we should be similarly unapologetic in our desire to ensure these teachers receive the right punishment.

But for those who are not following the story closely, the lengthy prison sentences are not actually because of the cheating on tests. Several conspirators who have confessed to cheating as early as a year ago have not received sentences that are even the slightest bit as severe as what some of the twelve defendants have received. It is the cover-up of the misconduct that has led to the excessive sentencing and racketeering charges. Many of the co-conspirators were found guilty of witness intimidation and suppression and falsification of testimony—you know, the type of gangsta shit you see in your favorite mafia films.

The city is being arbitrary in how they decide to penalize its culprits. While Sharon Davis-Williams, Tamara Cotman, and Michael Pitts are facing up to twenty years of prison, administrators like Millicent Few and Christopher Waller, whom witnesses have testified playing equally critical roles, have left this debacle mostly unscathed. In fact, the acts of both administrators had been used in testimony against the twelve defendants! Neither Few nor Waller have received jail time.

Investigations alleged that Few, a head of human resources, ordered staff to destroy and alter incriminating documents. Few pleaded guilty to racketeering and false swearing in February in exchange for testifying against Superintendent Beverley Hall, whom Few served under an executive capacity. She received 12-months’ probation, 250 hours of community service and a $800 fine. Waller, a former principal, plead guilty to similar offenses and received a 5-year probationary period, $50,000 fine, and 1,000 hours of community service. Two conspirators who are direct extensions of the primary instigator of the crimes (Beverley Hall) received what can be relatively considered slaps on the wrist. Davis-Williams, Cotman, and Pitts have been found guilty of similar offenses, so do we really believe they are guilty to that much greater a degree simply because they chose to go to trial? I am not sure how a group of persons performing the exact same actions can receive such a disparate sentencing.

It appears as if the District Attorney’s office was willing to provide freedom cards for anyone involved—regardless of guilt—in exchange for assisting the courts in ensuring that someone, presumably those unwilling to cooperate, take the brunt of the whole scam. A small confession for an administrator could help transfer tons of responsibility and accountability onto select individuals who chose to maximize their constitutional rights. Society can effectively shift the public blame onto those doing hard jail time while the courts and city officials can claim definitive victory. The sentencing overlooks that such a widespread operation of impunity requires the cooperation of hundreds, the decision to adjudicate so feverishly on those who chose not to admit their guilt is without sufficient grounds, especially if they were so willing to be lenient on those who admit guilt. Those who accepted plea deals are, in fact, equally as guilty in the eyes of the law. It seems as if the defendants were sentenced by the public instead of the law.

Most of us understand the reason why plea deals exist but few of us interrogate its legitimacy. To provide incentives for citizens to cooperate with law enforcement, district attorneys allow for settlements that could be significantly lower than the maximum penalty one has the potential to receive. I am not sure of the moral/legal basis for this practice, as one’s cooperation should not factor into one’s sentencing unless said
“uncooperation” leads to an actual criminal charge, for example, obstruction of justice.  In other words, if prison sentences are to be commensurate with the degree of guilt, then I am not sure why a person’s decision to simply exercise their right to trial makes them more-guilty. It is clearly a product of a “confess-your-sins-and-be-forgiven (kinda)” logic; One who is guilty but admits it, presumably, is less morally corrupt than one who is guilty but does not even if the acts performed are equal. Our criminal system should avoid turning pleas into poker-like bets, where every instance of defense is equated to upping the ante. Representation is designed as a check against the system; not a checkmate for the system. Defense is a right; no citizen should be punished greater for lawfully invoking it. Conversely, the alternative to invoking a right should not be an unequivocal decision to be punished to the letter of the law. Capitalistic wagers for constitutional rights contradicts the moral ground the law seeks to operate upon. The Truth is not an asset you ought to be able to leverage. The truth sets you free, not being truthful.

Consistency of law is important to maintaining a laws’ legitimacy. So while we should condemn the acts of the perpetrators, the defendants received the greatest injustice because we seemed to be subjective in our understanding of the comprehensiveness of wrongdoing here. Equality in adjudication was non-existent, making the defendants victims of a larger public agenda to have jail sentences that are congruent to the outrage of the system and inconsistent with the legal approach toward similar offenders. As a result, a slew of guilty teachers may serve the remainder of their twilight years of adult life behind bars while an even greater slew of equally culpable teachers and leaders remain home with their families. All because they admitted to being just like them.

Strange fruit, man.

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