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Tuesday May 26th, 2015 5:45AM

First trial opens in Atlanta school cheating case

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) -- The first trial is under way for an educator charged in a massive cheating scandal in Atlanta's public school system, a case that could be a preview of a bigger trial set for next year.

Testimony began Friday in the trial of former area director Tamara Cotman, the first of about three dozen former administrators and teachers to stand trial.

Witnesses could include former Gov. Sonny Perdue, who ordered a state investigation of the claims.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution ( http://bit.ly/1c3SmcV ) reported prosecutors will try to outline how cheating happened on such a broad scale, although Cotman has pleaded not guilty to influencing a witness.

The 2011 state investigation concluded cheating occurred at 44 schools so educators could avoid losing their jobs and earn bonuses.

Opening testimony showed Cotman rebuffed a teacher who reported that she had been given standardized test answer sheets, and the teacher was out of a job soon afterward.

Mary Gordon, who taught at Turner Middle School, said Cotman told her "they just do that at Turner" when asked about the answer sheets. Then Gordon's principal put her on an improvement plan, and Gordon quit out of frustration, ending a 29-year career.

Gordon testified for the prosecution to back up charges alleging Cotman harassed and demoted a principal who she believed reported to the school board that Cotman gave instructions for school employees to tell cheating scandal investigators to "go to hell."

Cotman is on trial in Fulton County Superior Court for trying to influence a witness, but she also is one of 35 former administrators and teachers, including Cotman's former boss, Superintendent Beverly Hall, who later will be tried on criminal charges for allegedly changing students' answers on standardized tests.

"We're going to prove to you that this defendant knew there was cheating going on and she did nothing about it," Clint Rucker, an assistant district attorney, said in his opening statement. "Those who told the truth got punished."

Cotman's attorney, Benjamin Davis, did not make an opening statement, reserving his time to do so until after the prosecution finishes presenting its case.

"I believe in my client's innocence," Davis said afterward. "We believe so far that the state hasn't proved anything, so I didn't see a need to give a statement."

Cotman is standing trial before the other defendants because her attorney requested a speedy trial on the single count of influencing a witness.
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