By David Beasley
ATLANTA (Reuters) - Prosecutors are weighing whether to file criminal charges against 178 Atlanta teachers and principals who state investigators said cheated on standardized tests to inflate student scores.
The cheating in 2009, found in 44 of the 56 Atlanta public schools examined, was prompted primarily by pressure to meet test score targets, a statement released by Governor Nathan Deal's office said.
"A culture of fear, intimidation and retaliation existed in Atlanta Public Schools, which created a conspiracy of silence," the state report concluded. The 2009 cheating was said to include teachers erasing incorrect answers on state standardized tests.
Deal's office said on Wednesday that the decision of whether or not to prosecute would be up to district attorneys in the three Georgia counties where the educators live.
Fulton County District Attorney Paul Howard said in a statement he had appointed a senior member of his staff to "begin a thorough review of this case to determine what role our office will play in taking action on this report."
Eighty-two teachers and principals have confessed to the cheating, according to the state report. Deal's office said six principals refused to answer questions.
"These principals, and 32 more, either were involved with or should have known that there was test cheating in their schools," the investigation found.
The report concluded that there was a "major failure of leadership throughout Atlanta Public Schools with regard to the ethical administration" of the 2009 standardized exams known as the Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.
Cheating occurred as early as 2001, and warnings several years ago of misconduct were ignored, the report said.
Amid the investigation, Beverly Hall stepped down last month after nearly 12 years as superintendent of the Atlanta Public Schools.
She had been named National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators in 2009, the same year the state contends widespread cheating took place.
The Atlanta school district has an enrollment of about 48,000 students and is smaller than many of the surrounding suburban school districts.
A schools spokesman, Keith Bromery, said the school system would take no action against the accused teachers and principals until it investigates the allegations in the state report.
Hall's attorney said he was reviewing the report, having just received it, but maintained there was no direct evidence that the former superintendent knew in 2009 that widespread cheating had occurred.
"We deny that Dr. Hall has engaged in any intentional wrongdoing whatsoever," a statement from attorney Richard Deane said.
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Johnston)