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Business Casual: Wanted: Real Villains

In the world of Saturday morning cartoons we inhabited in our childhood, the bad guys were easy to spot: black hats, twirling moustaches, evil laughter and ambitious plots to bring harm to good people and/or destroy the world. (The bad women mainly scowled a lot.)

Simpler times, with easier decisions about whom to root for. There was very little in the way of moral ambiguity to distract us from cheering the good folks and booing the villains.

Recent events do not lend themselves to such clarity. Take the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal and the convictions of 11 career educators on charges that included racketeering.

It was one thing to want “someone” to be held accountable for the harm that was done to a particularly vulnerable population of school children by people who should have been their staunchest advocates. It was quite another to see teachers and administrators handcuffed and escorted out of the courtroom to a bus that would take them immediately to the Fulton County jail. Only a pregnant convictee was spared the perp walk.

You could almost hear a collective gasp go up from the city when the verdict was announced and the judge ordered the guilty off to jail, reminding the lawyers and spectators that the one-time defendants were now convicted felons. They looked stunned as they gathered purses or other belongings. TV footage shows one bewildered woman taking off her earrings and handing them to someone, presumably for safe keeping, before she exits the courtroom.

Two individuals admitted their guilt in exchange for lighter sentences, but the unapologetic convicted educators, who have indicated they will appeal, are facing prison time.

There have been some cries of “they’re getting what they deserve,” but others question whether the punishment actually fits the crime. Even imagining the perpetrators with erasers in their hands doesn’t quite make the “villain” image fit.

A friend of mine says she would need to be an octopus to adequately express her views: On the one hand, they cheated. On the other hand, they are not hardened criminals. And on the other hand, isn’t RICO, the racketeering law successfully used by the prosecution, usually reserved for mobsters? And so on, through several other hands.

Early on, some educators charged initially in the cheating scandal took a plea bargain offered by Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard; they will serve no jail time.

Of course, missing from the courtroom was the late Dr. Beverly Hall, former APS superintendent; she was too ill to stand trial as the proceedings began and died before the case went to the jury. Despite the many references to the “culture of fear” she was said to have created among school system employees who were afraid of losing their jobs if students’ test scores did not go up, it was hard to make a woman dying of cancer into a satisfactory villain.

She had already experienced a serious fall from grace: She resigned her post, having gone from savior to pariah fairly quickly. The business community, which had supported her enthusiastically when she was reporting test score gains that seemed too good to be true, deserted her when it turned out they actually were too good to be true. Way too good.

Some have chosen to place the blame on the whole system of tests that seems to have turned public education upside-down, becoming the primary focus rather than simply a means of evaluating what’s been taught. They worry that education has given way to mere test preparation and that the students are poorer for it.

I am not one to defend an over-emphasis on testing, but I am not sure “the system” gets all the blame. For one thing, that lets too many people who misused or manipulated the system off the hook – one of those “everybody is guilty so maybe nobody is” situations that doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.

But we do have 11 former educators facing varying amounts of jail time who will probably never work in their chosen field again. Were they scared, greedy, ambitious, careless, weak, lazy or corrupt? Maybe. Evil people? I don’t think so.

Yet, had they all been exonerated, I can’t say I would have been happy about that.

Where are the good, old-fashioned, bad through-and-through villains when you need them?

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