ATLANTA (Reuters) - Eight former Atlanta public school educators were ordered on Tuesday to serve between one and seven years in prison, a stiff punishment for their convictions on racketeering charges in one of the nation's largest test-cheating scandals.
Superior Court Judge Jerry Baxter gave three of the 11 educators found guilty by a jury this month 20-year sentences, ordering that seven years must be served in prison and the rest on probation.
Five more educators received five-year sentences, with two ordered to serve two years in prison and three to serve one year.
"There were thousands of children that were harmed in this thing," Baxter said during the hearing, when he repeatedly got into heated exchanges with attorneys for the defendants.
"It’s like the sickest thing that’s ever happened to this town," he later said of the scandal that raised national alarm about high-stakes testing.
Two convicted educators avoided potentially harsher punishments by making sentencing agreements with prosecutors.
One was ordered to serve six months of weekends in jail and five years of probation.
The final educator to be sentenced also cooperated with prosecutors and apologized in court. She was sentenced to five years probation, with one year of an evening home curfew, and received no jail time.
After being begged for leniency by civil rights leaders and the educators' relatives on Monday, Baxter had urged the defendants to consider plea deals that would require them to accept responsibility in exchange for limiting their prison time.
Erasing wrong answers was part of the cheating by the educators, who were under intense pressure to meet test targets, prosecutors said during a nearly six-month trial.
Student achievement helped the former principals, teachers and administrators to secure promotions and cash bonuses.
Cheating was rampant throughout the Atlanta school district in 2009, state investigators found, exposing problems that raised national concerns about high-stakes standardized testing.
A Georgia grand jury in 2013 indicted 35 Atlanta educators, including former school superintendent Beverly Hall, on conspiracy and other charges.
Twelve of the educators ended up going on trial for the charges, and 11 were convicted. Hall died of breast cancer this year.
Sentencing was delayed until August for the remaining convicted educator.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard told reporters after the sentencing that it was never the goal of prosecutors see educators sent to prison.
"I wish that it had been different," he said.
(Writing by Letitia Stein; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Bill Trott and Lisa Lambert)