By Anna Simonton / The Appeal
This piece is a commentary, part of The Appeal’s collection of opinion and analysis.
If you’re not from Atlanta and you’ve heard of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, chances are it was from pundits gushing over her gutsy investigation of Donald Trump. Or maybe it was from her prosecution of rapper Young Thug and 27 people affiliated with his record label, Young Stoner Life, which Willis has cast as a “criminal street gang.” Or you could have seen reports that she’s among the growing number of prosecutors in red states pledging not to bring charges against abortion seekers.
“It is my responsibility as the elected District Attorney to set priorities for the use of my office’s resources,” she told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution shortly after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
But as Willis’s national profile rises, some of her priorities have evaded the spotlight, namely her efforts to incarcerate Black educators—mostly women—for allegedly cheating on standardized tests.
In 2015, 11 Black educators were convicted on RICO charges and sentenced to prison in what’s known as the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, which dominated local headlines for well over a year. Of the 12 people who went to trial, only one was acquitted. Willis was one of three lead prosecutors on the case, but her involvement didn’t end there.
In 2020, with the backing of the local police union, Willis was elected district attorney, making her the first Black woman to hold the office. Her predecessor, Paul Howard, had been the county’s top prosecutor for more than two decades.
Since Willis took office, she’s fought the Atlanta educators’ appeals. Last week, her office opposed a sentence reduction to spare a former principal from prison, but a judge granted it anyway. Six more educators could still be locked up unless Willis changes her stance.
Social justice groups are calling for Willis to hit the brakes on a case that they say has criminalized Black educators, perpetuated systemic racism, and ignored the root causes of cheating.
The prosecution of Atlanta’s educators was unprecedented, from the RICO charges to the prison sentences. Typically, administrators and educators accused of cheating have had their professional licenses suspended or revoked, or they were fined or sentenced to community service. (Thanks to federal policies like No Child Left Behind, cheating is a fairly widespread problem.)
But over the last seven years, two Atlanta educators have gone to prison and seven have had the threat of prison hanging over their heads as they appealed their cases.
One of those defendants can now breathe a little easier. On June 28, former principal Dana Evans narrowly avoided prison when retired Fulton County Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter—the same judge who originally sentenced her to a year in prison—agreed to reduce her sentence to probation and community service. (In Georgia retired judges are allowed to preside over cases). “What she has told me today is that she has accepted responsibility for what happened,” Baxter said. He also said he believed that some of the witnesses who testified against Evans had “agendas.” He concluded, “I gotta do what my conscience tells me and this is what it’s saying.”
Evans was not accused of cheating. She was accused of failing to stop it. At the Fulton County Justice Center, Evans apologized for her negligence. Her colleagues at a mental health clinic attested to the valuable community work she has done, and her lawyer, Bob Rubin, said she has fostered positive growth for “refugees, the mentally ill, victims of crime, and children who are poor.” A prison sentence would end that, he said.
Before the judge handed down the new sentence, Fulton County Chief Senior Assistant District Attorney Kevin Armstrong argued that Evans should be sent to prison. When asked by the judge if his position came “from the top down in the DA’s office,” Armstrong answered that it did.
Rubin told the court that before the hearing, he had met with Armstrong and Willis to discuss a sentence reduction for Evans. They were open to it, he said, but they ultimately weren’t satisfied with the apology letter Evans wrote.
“For that reason [Willis] wants to put Dr. Evans in jail for a year,” he said. “And I just don’t think that’s right.”
Tiffany Roberts, public policy director at the Southern Center for Human Rights and a legal expert familiar with the case, called Willis’s stance “quite disappointing.”
“We are hopeful that DA Willis utilizes a different approach in any remaining cases where teachers are facing similar sentences,” Roberts told The Appeal. “Moreover, we hope that she undertakes a more progressive, evidence-based approach overall in her office to focus on solutions that make communities safer, rather than merely punishment.”
Willis’s staff did not respond to a request for comment from The Appeal.
Willis is defending convictions that are steeped in inequity and hypocrisy. In 2010, then-Governor Sonny Perdue launched special investigations into Atlanta Public Schools and the Dougherty County School System based on a statewide analysis of 2009 test scores that found cheating might have occurred in more than half of Georgia’s elementary and middle schools. At the same time, he applied for and won a $400 million federal grant by touting rising test scores that he attributed to “higher standards and harder assessments.”
The investigation into Atlanta Public Schools quickly escalated into a dragnet. Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents pulled teachers from classrooms and interrogated them without lawyers present, promising immunity if they confessed and named colleagues who cheated—a recipe for false accusations. The investigations found that cheating was widespread in both Atlanta Public Schools, which was helmed by a Black superintendent, and Dougherty County schools, where the superintendent was white. The Dougherty County investigation was swept under the rug. But in Atlanta, Willis’s predecessor, Paul Howard, indicted 35 educators from 11 schools.
Howard’s indictment pushed the bounds of RICO to claim that Atlanta Public Schools was a criminal enterprise in which educators conspired to cheat to gain bonus money. However, the special investigation had concluded that bonus money “provided little incentive to cheat,” and most of the 12 educators who went to trial never received a bonus. One was a teacher whose students didn’t even pass the tests. Others taught first and second grade, in which students only took practice tests that didn’t count toward “targets”—the goals set by the district.
But these details got lost in the spectacle of the trial. In her opening statements, Willis told jurors, “You are going to learn—surprise, surprise—a lot of teachers are women. A lot of the teachers in Atlanta Public Schools were African American teachers, quite frankly, and that a lot of them were single mamas. They needed their jobs,” implying that they would do anything, even cheat, to stay employed.
While the prosecution peddled in stereotypes, Judge Baxter’s behavior threatened to bias the jury against the defense. Evans’s appellate brief cites dozens of examples.
Baxter was often rude to defense attorneys, even calling one a “peacock” and threatening to arrest him for jaywalking. He allowed a witness to move around the courtroom to identify a defendant and told her she was “getting cold.” And he consistently rushed the defense. The state called more than 200 witnesses, but when it was Evans’s lawyer’s turn to bring witnesses, Baxter complained after the ninth. “How many more of these witnesses do you plan to put up?” he demanded.
Many state witnesses were educators who accepted immunity or plea bargains in exchange for agreeing to testify. Two recanted on the witness stand. There were so many conflicting testimonies that, outside the presence of the jury, Baxter said, “Perjury is being committed daily here.”
The trial lasted eight months—the longest criminal trial in Georgia history.
The appeals have dragged on for seven years. In that time, some have moved more quickly than others. An administrator and a teacher have gone to prison and been released, and now Evans’s case is resolved. Meanwhile, six defendants are represented by one public defender who has been stuck in a fight with the state over providing them each their own attorney.
When Willis told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution she wouldn’t use “precious tax dollars” to prosecute abortion cases, she conceded a fact that many prosecutors prefer to downplay: that they have immense discretion over which cases to pursue. It begs the question of why precious tax dollars should be used to send educators to prison, especially given the serious flaws in the investigation and trial.
Willis has an opportunity to help correct a long-standing injustice in Fulton County. She can seek a resolution with the remaining defendants that would keep them out of prison and finally put the cheating scandal to rest. And her new national fan club should demand she do it.
Aja Arnold contributed reporting to this story.
Disclosure: Anna Simonton is the coauthor, with Shani Robinson, of None of the Above: The Untold Story of the Atlanta Public Schools Cheating Scandal, Corporate Greed, and the Criminalization of Educators. Robinson was convicted in the cheating trial. Simonton is a graduate of the Atlanta Public Schools, and Evans was a counselor at Simonton’s middle school.