Attorney for Cayuga teacher calls cheating investigation an ‘inquisition’

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

The attorney for Ary Sloane, one of the educators from Cayuga Elementary School who was criminally charged in the investigation of cheating on standardized tests, has called the state attorney general’s probe "an inquisition."

Sloane, former Cayuga principal Evelyn Cortez, and three teachers were arrested Thursday on charges that included conspiracy, forgery, and tampering with public records.

Cortez, Jennifer Hughes, and Lorraine Vicente were also charged with perjury and "corrupt organizations," a first-degree felony that is similar to racketeering. (The federal RICO law stands for Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act.)

"This matter is serious, but I think the extremes by which the state attorney general is going to proves this case is really unfair," said Michael Coard, who represents Sloane.

He called the "corrupt organizations" charge levied against three of the educators "ridiculous. You’re talking about the Mafia, organized crime."

Prosecutors in Atlanta, home to what has been the most wide-ranging criminal investigation of test cheating in the country so far, also used racketeering laws to charge educators. There, 35 educators faced criminal charges; 21 pleaded guilty and 13, including former superintendent Beverly Hall, are facing trial.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education had flagged 53 District schools for possible cheating and investigated 11 so-called "Tier 1" District schools — those with the most suspicious statistical irregularities. These included Cayuga.

The District is investigating the remaining schools and has taken disciplinary action against 15 other educators. But these are the first five to face criminal charges. Three Philadelphia charters were also flagged by the state and ordered to investigate themselves.

Cortez’s lawyer, Matthew Sedacca, has told reporters that the charges are false and that his client is shocked by them. In the grand jury report, teachers describe Cortez as orchestrating various cheating scenarios and ordering them or others to comply.

Sloane had been at Cayuga for 15 years, from 1993 to 2008, in the last years serving as the PSSA testing coordinator. She admitted to the grand jury, according to its report, that on the orders of principal Cortez, she made test booklets available to teachers so they could review the material with students in advance, in violation of the rules.

Sloane also said that she observed other teachers helping students with answers and saw them take students who had not missed the original testing to the make-up room for do-overs.

She also said that she saw Cortez remove booklets from their secure location, take them into her office in the company of other teachers, and close the door.

Another teacher who was charged, Rita Wyszynski, told the grand jury that she, Sloane and Cortez would come into the school on Saturdays and change test answers. She also said that Sloane would coach students on test content before they took the test.

"These allegations are just that, allegations," Coard said. "Based on my investigation, my client is not just presumed innocent, but factually innocent. … Without pointing the finger at anybody else, it seems to me that if there’s any blame to be had, it certainly is not to be directed at my client."

The investigation covered the testing years of 2007 to 2011. Most recently, Sloane served as principal of Bethune Elementary. She and the others were suspended immediately and will be paid until a disciplinary hearing that will probably take place next week, according to District spokesman Fernando Gallard.

Leno Thomas, attorney for teacher Jennifer Hughes, said his client was "100 percent unequivocally not guilty. … We look forward to vigorously defending her and addressing these issues in court."

The grand jury report quotes teacher Barbara Dolt saying that students told her that Cortez and Hughes, a special education teacher, helped them fill in answers to the test. Dolt took notes and had the students sign them.

Another teacher told the grand jury that Hughes performed duties that she was not authorized to perform because she was not the testing coordinator, and that she and Cortez watched small groups of students retake the test when they were not eligible to do so.

Asked why the grand jury included her in the charges, Thomas said, "I have no idea. My client participated in the grand jury investigation. Every time she was asked to come down, she came down. She never once took the Fifth Amendment. She’s always told the truth and she was never part of any cheating. I’m not saying that it didn’t go on there. I’m just saying she was not a part of it."

Attorneys for Wyszynski and Lorraine Vicente, the other teacher charged, could not be reached.

The grand jury report says that Sloane and Wyszynski cooperated and answered questions and the three others denied that any cheating took place.

Gallard said that in the District’s own investigation of 19 so-called Tier 2 schools, 15 educators have so far been disciplined. The discipline process for educators is a civil procedure. The District can take action, such as termination, and then refer the case to the PDE for further sanctions, such as revocation of credentials.

To date, three principals and three teachers have been terminated, he said. Three others, a principal and two teachers, were suspended for finite periods of time. One person has been barred from ever being a testing coordinator, while two former employees, a principal and teacher, have had their termination pay held while their cases are referred to PDE. Two former principals were barred from working again in the District and their termination pay deducted.

Past press reports have noted that two former principals surrendered their administrative credentials in April 2013. The three terminated principals were identified in January. One teacher lost his teaching credentials for the summer, which was noted on a state website. One charter school administrator was also disciplined by the state. The other employees have not been named.