On April 1, 2015, in the Atlanta Fulton County Courthouse, 11 educators were found guilty of Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). This is the first time in the history of this country that educators were criminally charged and later jailed for RICO. RICO is a federal law to punish ongoing criminal organizations such as the Mafia. During the trial in Fulton County they defined this “ongoing criminal organization” as the Atlanta Public School System. I am not guilty of these charges and believe our prosecution to be politically motivated. I have filed an appeal to a higher court. I continue to fight for justice & truth. This fight is also bigger than the eight educators remaining, it is a fight against a belief that poor children cannot withstand high standards of academics. It is a fight for other educators across this country. It is a fight against the disproportionate numbers of convictions for certain groups of people. It is a fight to ensure all people regardless of their political power or financial status have the right afforded to all citizens. There has been numerous untruthful accounts of the “cheating investigation” in Georgia. I would like to share truths...
Who Am I?
One of my favorite quotes from Mahatma Gandhi is, “Be the change you would like to see in the world”. I must admit, that those are more than words for me. Those words speak to a way of life and embodied my leadership focus while a Principal in Atlanta Public Schools. I am relentless in my pursuit to raise the standards for the education of children living in poverty. I had high expectations for myself and my staff, but contrary to what was communicated in the media, it was not to boost test scores, but to ensure that every child under my care had an environment conducive for learning, they received the best possible education, and that each student received a strong academic foundation that would capture their hearts and minds to ensure they would graduate from high school and then college. My goal for every student at Dobbs was to ensure they had access to the necessary educational resources that would enhance opportunities that would lead to a better life.
In 2010, when this investigation began, I was a successful educator. During my more than 20 total years in education and prior to these allegations, I enjoyed a wonderful record without a single write-up, disciplinary action, ethical complaint or an accusation of misconduct. The charges and subsequent barrage of media attacks significantly misrepresent who I am as a person and who I was as an educator.
My education and subsequent academic scores exemplify my belief that with concentrated effort, confidence and hard work, the seemingly impossible becomes possible. I am the first person in my immediate family to earn a college degree. I earned a Ph.D. from Mercer University and graduated with a 3.9 grade point average (GPA), a Master’s Degree from the University of Pittsburgh with a 3.85 GPA, an Educational Leadership Certificate from the University of Georgia with a 4.0 GPA, and a Bachelor’s degree from California University of Pennsylvania. I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC), have an E-Learning Instructional Design Certification and I was a certified Childbirth Educator.
I worked for 18 years in the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) as a Guidance Counselor, Instructional Specialist and Principal. During my tenure in APS, I completed the Superintendent’s Academy for Building Leaders in Education (SABLE) and the Georgia Department of Education’s "Institute for New Leaders". Prior to working in APS, I worked as a teacher with students in an alternative education program. I was a Team Leader of an outreach program geared towards women’s health issues with a focus on infant mortality, and I was a Coordinator of a program in urban high schools designed to enhance opportunities for first generation students to matriculate to post-secondary education.
In June 2007, I worked at one of the highest performing middle schools in Georgia, Inman Middle School. The school was located in one of the wealthiest areas in Atlanta. This was a racially diverse school but the area demographics was predominantly white and affluent people. I worked at Inman for 12 years. I had a blemish free record, never been reprimanded nor admonished in reference to my job performance, never been accused or found in violation of cheating, testing errors, matters of irregularity or unsatisfactory performance. During those years at Inman Middle School, I was a Guidance Counselor and then became the Instructional Specialist. As the Guidance Counselor, I was awarded the recognition of Guidance Counselor of the Year for the entire school District. I was also awarded “The Soaring Eagle Award” from the parents and administration at Inman. I would later come to know that in this investigation an exemplary history did not matter.
We were all categorized in one large group, like cattle, with little regard for who we were as individuals; it was decided we were guilty and that was the way it was. This was also true in court during the trial.
In July 2007, I was promoted to a principal position and moved to Dobbs Elementary School. I moved to a predominately black, economically disadvantaged school and one month after leaving the affluent school with honors and a respectable reputation, I was called by the Governors Investigators, The District Attorney’s office and many Atlanta media outlets a liar, cheater and thief. I was the same person that worked at “the other school”, the only thing that changed was the zip code that I worked in, the racial makeup of the school and the economic status of the community.
There is no doubt in my mind that if I would have stayed at the affluent school I would not have been indicted. One of the sad and discouraging facts of this case is that there were no people of other nationalities indicted nor in court on trial even though there some who also had high erasures. There were no educators from any of the affluent schools…only black (African American) from economically disadvantaged schools.
Unfortunately, there are disturbing and glaring common characteristics of the schools impacted by the Georgia CRCT Investigation:
All African American Educators. I personally had teachers at Dobbs that were non-black whose classes were flagged but none were indicted or fired.
Schools represented were disproportionately disadvantaged with high mobility rates, primarily African American students living below the poverty guidelines.
A Shifting Paradigm
Teacher Focused to Competency Based Focus
Moving to Dobbs was a complete paradigm shift. Although challenging, my children at Dobbs were amazing and I loved them. I found them to be eager to learn and receptive to changes that created a more structured, engaged learning environment. Dobbs had more than 95% free and reduced lunch rate and a higher than 40% mobility rate, but in spite of those alarming demographic variables and the inherent conditions that aligns with them, we managed to prevail and make the seemingly impossible, possible – a school of high academic standards. We worked tirelessly to provide the students at Dobbs with the quality of education and resources they deserve - the very best; the same quality of education that existed in the economically advantaged schools I worked in previously. The focus shifted from teacher focused to student focused and from what we intended to teach to what students were actually learning.
The three teachers that cheated at Dobbs hid cheating from me. How then can I be guilty of a “conspiracy” when the teachers that cheated admittedly hid their actions from me?”
“All Children Can Learn”
Our theme for three years was “Growing Greatness”, and I worked to instill the idea of continual growth of our students, teachers and staff. The goal was to be a better teacher, a better student, a better contributing member of our Dobbs community and the world. Below are a few accomplishments under my leadership:
Improved academic scores (small incremental improvements)
Increased computers in the classroom from one per class (roughly 40) to over 250 during my four years at Dobbs.
Increased SMART boards from zero to one in every classroom.
Developed strong instructional practices; implemented Before school/After school/ Saturday School tutoring programs for my students; I implemented a data protocol process that identified academic weaknesses for students and then allotted time during the school day to remediate.
Provided more professional development for teachers than was ever given at Dobbs AND held staff responsible for treating children with love and teaching them as if they were their own children.
Received Metro Chamber of Commerce Community partnership award for developing and implementing a GED program for the parents and community around the school.
Wrote and secured approximately a million dollar grant for an after school program and summer academy.
Wrote and secured approximately a $25,000 Grant for healthy fruits and vegetable snacks for students.
Partnered with a school in Jamaica and one in Africa in which the students communicated through Skype. Through this program, the school was given an LCD project, computer and media equipment.
As a result of the CRCT investigations, as the Principal of Dobbs, I have undergone five separate investigations with: The Governors Commission, The Professional Standards Commission, Atlanta Public Schools Office of Internal Relations, Penn Payne Report and The Blue Ribbon Commission. As a matter of fact, The Governors Report indicated that teachers cheated at Dobbs prior to me becoming the Principal and after "but not under my direction".
Presumption of Innocence Denied
Our legal system purports that I was presumed innocent, however that right was denied me in Georgia. All investigations cleared me from participating in cheating in any way. It’s amazing that in court, during the trial, I was found guilty without a SINGLE written piece of evidence. The DA had copies of over 16,000 emails that I wrote while a principal. Additionally, they had over 6,000 documents I created at the school. There were no emails, memos, taped audio recordings, video recordings or any other “unquestionable” documents presented as evidence; they didn’t exist. Not one teacher reported that I told them to cheat. The three teachers that cheated at my school hid cheating from me. How then can I be guilty of a conspiracy when the teachers that cheated admittedly hid their actions from me?
I produced over 300 documents of evidence of the procedures I created and implemented at Dobbs which included written statements to the staff about integrity and ethics. I was a leader that put children first and in partnership with the staff created a better learning environment at Dobbs. This message was also repeated again and again in the news with little substantive data to support it. Below is an excerpt from an email I sent to a reporter with the Atlanta Journal and Constitution (AJC) disputing these slanderous and untrue claims. I also attached to this email approximately 20 documents with evidence of the support provided to Dobbs students (before, after-school tutorial, extended learning groups, individual tutoring etc.). They unfortunately have not been interested in reporting a fair and unbiased story.
Dear Mr. Tagami,
I recently read the article written by you on April 5, 2015. Until my conviction I have been unable to respond to the onslaught of incomplete, incorrect and totally untrue accounts of the APS Cheating Investigation and subsequent trial in the media. I feel compelled to respond to the incomplete stories as they have and continue to affect me personally, professionally and legally. This, I believe, is one of the reasons it was impossible to have a fair trial. Your story entitled “The Real Victim” omitted out pertinent information that I know your organization to be aware of because an AJC representative was in the courtroom daily.
You wrote, “Inflated test scores masked academic failure that went unaddressed as students were pushed from one grade to the next and then out into the community”. One of the misconceptions that you as well as your newspaper continues to tell the general public is that a single CRCT score could determine the level of support received at the school level. This is not true at Dobbs. I respectfully ask you to stop saying this when referencing my school as it is absolutely false. It is intentionally misleading and egregiously misrepresents my efforts to ensure that the students at Dobbs received the same quality of education that students in affluent neighborhoods received.
As per the testimony of the 14 teachers from Dobbs (these teachers classes were not flagged and they are in good standing with the District) it’s untrue that students were recommended to receive additional support solely based on a CRCT score. Each year during the first week of school students were given diagnostic assessments in each core area to determine their level of functioning. Teachers used that to determine who needed additional support. As the year progressed the teachers used the data from their assessments, class work, common assessments given at the school etc. The fallacy that students didn’t get help and were passed on a lie…. I implemented more interventions at Dobbs than I ever did at Inman. I dare you to compare the support students received at Dobbs to ANY high performing school in Georgia. I would love to be part of that article.
The CRCT Investigation Massacre
In February of 2010, schools in Atlanta Public Schools (APS) were notified that former Governor Sonny Purdue (Governor at that time) ordered his office, Georgia Office of Student Achievement (GOSA), to conduct an erasure analysis on the Criterion-Referenced Competency Test (CRCT) for the entire state of Georgia. Although the erasure analysis involved all schools in Georgia only two systems: Atlanta Public schools and Dougherty County schools, which are both primarily African American, were singled out by the State. Dougherty County did not indict any of their educators. The Governor then appointed two private attorneys, Mike Bowers and Bob Wilson as “Special Investigators”, which gave them power to issue subpoenas requiring people to testify under oath or produce documents. Governor Perdue used an obscure 1943 state law that granted him authority to appoint special investigators to probe agencies or individuals that have dealings with state government.
Other agencies that were involved in the investigation were representatives from: The Georgia Bureau of Investigation, Office of State Inspector General, District, Solicitor-General, DeKalb County and Georgia State Patrol. The headquarters for the investigation was the Balch & Bingham law offices (which Mike Bowers is a partner). Atlanta educators were subpoenaed to appear at his law office. Those who failed to comply were threatened with contempt of court. We were additionally sent a letter from Superintendent Dr. Hall requiring us to meet with and cooperate with the investigation or we would face being terminated. Initially, approximately 60 GBI agents were assigned to the “Bowers Group” to conduct the interviews. This was the highest number of Georgia agents to work on a case in Georgia’s history.
The most disturbing part about this investigation is that the agents came to the schools during the school day wearing guns and pulled teachers out of classes. They threatened educators and admittedly asked for and used unsubstantiated information, gossip and rumors to complete the report. The head of the investigation testified in court that he did not verify the rumors for truth. He stated, “That wasn’t my job. We were assigned to collect information only.”
The report was completed, turned into the Governor and immediately placed on the internet (by the Governor’s office) in July 2012. Our names were then forwarded to the Professional Standards Commission (PSC) and they attempted to revoke our licenses. This governing body (the PSC) uses a specific formula to revoke the licenses of Atlanta Public School employees but does not use that formula for any other school district in Georgia. Basically, if anyone reported something negative about educators, administrators or the it was included in the report. Witnesses did not have to substantiate their statements with evidence. It was uncovered that the GBI offered teachers immunity for cheating if they implicated a “higher up”, a principal or executive director. When we were interrogated (sometimes for hours) we were threatened with losing our license, jobs and some threatened with losing custody of their children.
The Dobbs investigative report included staff members who were disproportionately documented for poor performance and mistreatment of children. Read the facts below which are all documented:
Only 21 total interviews were included in the report out of a total of 68 staff members interviewed
A significant number of the staff members included in the report were reported by me for abusive treatment of children, poor performance, ethical violations and or policy violations (documents of these facts were shared during the trial).
I have unfortunately had to recommend non-renewal for staff members over the last four years, for actions as atrocious as choking a student, taping a child’s mouth shut, to teachers just refusing to teach. As a matter of fact, the DA used staff members to testify against me that did the following things to students: A paraprofessional knocked a child's tooth out, A teacher called her children niggers and said they need to stop coming to school for free lunch, A teacher fell asleep in class and two elementary 1st grade students had inappropriate sexual relations, A paraprofessional choked a special education student, and a teacher was late to school approximately 100 times. These were the witnesses the DA used against me. These witnesses perjured themselves repeatedly on the stand, and the DA was aware of this and still used them to testify.
The DA also played on the emotions of the jury stating that children were academically hurt. One DA told the jury that because of cheating would turn to prostitution, stripping and gangs. These outrageous claims were submitted in court without evidence to support them. This message was also repeated again and again in the news with little substantive data to support it.
Bonus Money “Hoax”
One of the most deceitful misconceptions you will hear in the media is that we cheated for bonus money. We were also said to have cheated for salary increases. The total amount that I received from bonus money for the total indictment period (2007/08 - 2010/11) was $1,000. If you divide that by all 12 for 4 years that's $250.00 per year. We supposedly cheated to make targets for bonus money. I only made targets one time in the four years I was a Principal. I never received a salary increase for achievement scores. I spent more of my own personal money at Dobbs than $1,000 a year. For example, the GED program I started required the parents to take the GED when they were ready. I paid for, out of my own money, the cost of the exam for any parent that completed the program.
The Real Cost
The cost, however, to tax payers was millions. This investigation cost Georgia tax payers millions of dollars. For example, Bob Wilson testified that my interview with the special investigators was with approximately eight (8) investigators. There were actually more than eight, more like 12. He approximated the cost for the 45 minute interview to be $1,600.00. He also indicated that they performed over 2,000 interviews. You do the math.
“I would prefer to fail with integrity than to win by cheating”
Cheating is wrong. I do not condone cheating in any way and as a matter of fact, I told my staff not to cheat. I provided evidence during the trial that I told teachers verbally and in writing to follow the directions provided by the Georgia Department of Education (GDOE) and not to deviate from the testing procedures. I provided an in-service training for the entire staff and they all signed that they received this training. This was also shown in court. The interesting thing about the trial is although I provided as evidence written documentation and verbal accounts (teacher witnesses) of these facts, the jury chose to believe the verbal testimony of witnesses that perjured themselves repeatedly while on the stand. I believe that the pervasiveness and inaccuracies posted n the local news stories made t impossible for any of us to have a fair trial. The burden of proof was always for the defense instead of the DA/prosecutors as the law states, and we were not given the “presumption of innocence” which is not the way that the justice system is supposed to work.