Publication: May 9, 2014
By Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy
The Rye city school district responded Thursday to a federal lawsuit filed by two district teachers accused of improperly coaching students on state exams.
(Photo: Tania Savayan, Staff)
RYE – Osborn Elementary School teacher Carin Mehler told students to change answers during the state assessments in 2013, according to the Rye school district.
Dana Coppola, a Milton Elementary School teacher, asked students to raise their hands after fixing an answer so she could check it again and tell them if it was right.
These are some of the allegations detailed by the school district in a response to the two teachers’ lawsuits filed in federal court, providing details for the first time into their alleged “misconduct.”
For more than a year since it placed four teachers on administrative leave for testing irregularities, the district has described the incidents as “improper coaching.” The superintendent charged Coppola on May 1 with 10 counts of “misconduct and neglect of duty” in 2011 and 2013.
Thursday’s court filing shows the district’s investigation into Coppola, a tenured teacher, was launched after a parent complained that her child had received “assistance” during testing in 2011.
“In light of this report, the district concluded it was necessary to investigate Coppola’s conduct further,” the district said in court papers.
At least five students reported that, in 2013, Coppola reviewed their answers and “told them to check or fix answers that were incorrect, told students to add more detail to essay answers, assisted with spelling and gave additional information to assist in answering certain math questions,” the district alleges.
In Mehler’s case, a concerned Osborn parent reported that both her children had received assistance from their teachers during the state exams. The other teacher, Gail Topol, a third-grade teacher at Osborn, returned to the classroom in February after paying a fine of $2,500 and converting 27 days of her administrative reassignment to a paid suspension.
In the course of the district’s investigation, at least four students provided specific and detailed examples of how Mehler assisted them.
“Mehler reviewed the students’ answers and suggested to students that they may want to change their answers, told students to add more detail to their answers and to check spelling, capitals and punctuations, told students to make their essays longer and explain things better, told students they did not need a protractor for questions and told students they did not need to measure to answer certain questions,” according to the district.
Arthur Schwartz, the teachers’ attorney, called the allegations “preposterous.”
“The teachers utterly deny it,” Schwartz said. “These are all things that happened during practice tests.”
The district also accuses Mehler of dissuading the initial reporting student from “continuing to participate in the investigation by excluding the student from a party for her class and to intimidate the student and the student’s parent by undermining the veracity of the student in a draft of the end of the year Report Card.”
“That’s a whole lot of malarkey,” said Schwartz, adding the teacher had no idea which student made the initial report.
Coppola and Mehler, both on paid reassignment, are suing the district for $4 million and $1 million respectively in compensatory and punitive damages.
Shannon Gold, a fourth-grade teacher at Milton, resigned from the district in January.
The district changed its protocol on proctoring state assessments this year by disallowing teachers to oversee their own classes.