The teachers began to notice him at the beginning of the 2010 school year, the stranger in a red pickup truck and lizard-skin boots. He was in the hallways and in the classrooms of the school. He was in the principal’s office and in the lounge. He was even in the lunchroom, sitting with a food tray at one of the tables near the children, almost every day. So he became familiar over the course of a few weeks at Venetian Hills Elementary, in southwest Atlanta, but not familiar in a comforting way; the stranger’s presence set the teachers on edge. The school had a secret, and some of the teachers and even the principal would end up lying to protect it, and were encumbered with the reality of why he was there. He could appear inside their doorways startlingly, unexpectedly. He’d flash the credentials of his governor-issued ID, a smile on his face and his shirt tucked into his blue jeans, boots clacking against the floor. “Hi,” he’d say. “I’m Richard Hyde. I’m one of the governor’s special investigators, and I’d like to talk to you.”
Venetian Hills Elementary School; photograph by Christopher T. Martin
First he tried to put the teachers at ease. They were terrified of him, afraid they’d lose their jobs if they uttered a word. He had more than thirty years’ experience as an investigator, and approached them with his calming, almost hillbilly drawl, as though he were a friend stopping in from the cold. He pretended, at first, to know nothing about them, even though he’d read their files; to know nothing much about what might have gone on at the school, though he’d seen the numbers—75.4 percent of classrooms there flagged for wrong-to-right erasures on the standardized tests one year earlier. He handed out business cards and said, “If you decide to talk, call me.”
And he kept coming back. He kept parking his big truck in the school lot and eating in the cafeteria, and his reptilian boots kept clacking on the tile. He talked to secretaries and nurses, people, he says, who “knew what was going on, but had never been asked.” From the first day inside the school, when he knew he wouldn’t get a lot of cooperation, his gut told him the same thing that the wildly unbelievable standard deviations on the 2009 Georgia CRCT test erasure study had all but confirmed: There was something going on here; he could feel it, but couldn’t articulate exactly what it was.
The first person who confessed was a third-grade teacher named Jacquelyn Parks. She was a well-dressed woman with a voice loud enough to carry above the noise that spilled through the hallways of what Hyde observed to be a very loud school. When he first approached her, she wanted her students and whoever happened to be standing outside the room to hear her response, almost shouting at him cartoonishly, I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE TALKING ABOUT, AND I CAN’T TALK TO YOU! In his experience this was a red flag, an embellishment akin to a wink, a silent plea for him to contact her anywhere but school. So he did.
He focused on her. He kept going back to her. She would see him in his sunglasses, see his truck, see him eating lunch, see him talking to the secretary. But it was at church, according to Hyde, where the Lord revealed that she should tell him what she knew. Hyde went to her home with a female lawyer from Balch & Bingham law firm (where he works), so Parks would feel more at ease.
On the big poster-board map of the Atlanta Public Schools system in his Downtown office at Balch & Bingham, after former attorney general Mike Bowers asked him to be the lead investigator on a case that would take them almost a year to complete, Hyde had circled the flagged schools with a red highlighter, looking for a place to begin, and had seen Venetian down in his old police territory. It had seemed little better than a shot in the dark.
A self-described “former bumblin’ beat cop who will never wear a Hickey Freeman suit,” Hyde had picked Venetian Hills because he had patrolled that area of Atlanta when he was a rookie police officer on the overnight shift. This was during the Wayne Williams case, when that part of the city thought the killer might’ve been a cop.
Parks confessed with her lawyers present in the Cumberland Room of Balch & Bingham. Bowers and Bob Wilson, the other two senior investigators called by then Governor Sonny Perdue to lead the case, were in the room, and knew this was the break they needed. They listened intently. Parks described being one of the “chosen ones” at Venetian Hills, a small group of longtime teachers trusted by the principal to gather together and change students’ test scores in a windowless room, sometimes wearing gloves. After she confessed, the investigators were able to coax her to wear a wire and record conversations. Venetian Hills was the test run of something that would turn out to be bigger than any of the three investigators imagined.
“I try not to get involved emotionally in stuff like this. I’m a hired gun,” Hyde said this past winter, in his first interview regarding the matter. “But this case really affected us all, especially the guys I worked with—Mike and Bob. I think it was much more emotional for them.”
And that’s basically how Richard Hyde cracked open the biggest school cheating scandal in American history.