Board rejects teacher’s appeal; upholds firing

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 18, 1998

By Rebecca Burk / L’Observateur / May 18, 1998

LUTCHER – Normally the St. James School Board doesn’t mess around,resulting in short, to-the-point board meetings.

But Tuesday night the board room was transformed into a courtroom drama by New Orleans lawyer Larry Samuel, although no one present was under oath. Samuel represented Cyril Crutchfield, an American history teacherand basketball coach at St. James High School accused of helping studentscheat on LEAP tests.

The board went into executive session at the April 28 meeting and decided to follow Superintendent John Boughton’s recommendation to terminate Crutchfield in a 5-0 vote, with John Schexnayder and Willis Octave abstaining.

Samuel informed the board that he wanted to appeal the decision, so that item was placed on Tuesday’s agenda to be discussed in executive session.

But Samuel waived the right to an executive session.

Boughton and board attorney Tommy Klibert agreed, so testimony and interrogation began and dragged on for about two hours of the two and a half hour meeting, until the board went into an executive session to digest everything members heard.

During testimony, St. James High Principal Doris Jacobs said the LEAPtest was administered March 30, 31 and April 1. She said that on March 31she saw copies of the “cheat sheets” Crutchfield allegedly passed out to students.

She said when she questioned him Crutchfield told her they were merely study guides. But with rumors flying and more teachers coming to Jacobswith copies of the sheets, she took a second look.

“In the past we had discrepancies with LEAP tests in this parish, and I wanted to make sure that no security was broken in our school,” Jacobs said.

So with the help of Floyd Marshall, St. James High counselor and LEAP testadministrator, the two compared Crutchfield’s study sheets with a copy of the LEAP test.

Because the answers were “strikingly the same,” Jacobs informed Assistant Superintendent Caldonia Ceasar and continued her investigation, which included questioning teachers, students and Crutchfield.

In a conference with Crutchfield, Jacobs said she asked him where he got the questions for the study sheets. Crutchfield said the questions camefrom a study guide he found among papers left by last year’s American history teacher.

When Jacobs asked him why he rewrote the guide in his own handwriting, he said the original was damaged and torn. Jacobs asked Crutchfield to getthe original one, but he couldn’t find it.

Amazingly enough, Samuel pulled the tattered original out of his briefcase and passed it around the board table as evidence.

Samuel also presented other bits of evidence, such as a legal LEAP study guide in which many of the questions are similar and verbatim to ones on the LEAP exam, and a copy of Crutchfield’s handwritten study guide.

If Crutchfield did get his hands on a copy of the LEAP test, no one knows how. Crutchfield was out for a SACS convention March 24-26. Marshallsaid the LEAP tests arrived at the high school on March 25 and were under lock and key until they were passed out to homeroom teachers administering tests the morning of March 30.

“The security of St. James High is so tight that it would have beenimpossible to get the tests because they were in the vault,” Marshall said.

Marshall added that the comparisons showed the LEAP test was shockingly similar to the study sheets Crutchfield issued.

“The material that Mrs. Jacobs showed me and the material I saw was 80to 90 percent verbatim as to what was in the test booklet,” Marshall said.

When the study guide and a copy of the test were passed to school board administrators for examination, Jude Reulet, high school supervisor, said the same thing.

“I found that 33 of the 35 items matched and some were cited verbatim,” he said.

Testing rules at St. James High are that no other teachers except thoseadministering the LEAP tests are allowed in the building during test time.

Marshall said he didn’t see Crutchfield in the building during the testing, but Jacobs did see him and they said they have a witness who saw Crutchfield by teacher Jennifer Rougee’s door while she was administering her tests.

They would not reveal the name of the witness, but Samuel called Rougee to the podium and asked if she gave a copy of the test to Crutchfield or even let him look at one. She told board members she didn’t show the testto Crutchfield or give him a copy.

Samuel also called a few of the swarm of students who came to the meeting in support of Crutchfield, to the podium for questioning.

One 11th-grader, Kendra Winchester, said Crutchfield was her American history teacher and basketball coach. When Samuel asked her what day shegot the study guide from Crutchfield, she replied Friday, March 27, as did most of the students.

Board member Lloyd LeBlanc asked Winchester if she ever saw Crutchfield outside of class beyond as a teacher and a coach.

Obviously insulted, Winchester haughtily replied that she did not.

Two other students spoke of Crutchfield’s good character and their desire to have him back in the classroom.

“He is a very dedicated teacher and was there when we needed him,” Myla Oubre, 11th-grader, said.

Crutchfield also got the opportunity to defend his case when Samuel questioned him at the podium. Crutchfield accused last year’s historyteacher of cheating because he got the questions from papers he left behind.

Ceasar said the state Department of Education changes at least 50 to 60 percent of the tests from year to year.

But Crutchfield said after he was suspended he went to Baton Rouge to do some investigating of his own. He said he talked to someone at the stateDepartment of Education, and they told him only 30 percent of the test changes from year to year.

While in Baton Rouge, Crutchfield requested permission to compare a copy of the LEAP test to his study guide, and he admitted that 33 of the 35 answers were the same.

Crutchfield urged the board to believe his side of the story.

“Teaching is my life,” he said. “I have put hard effort in it.”With interrogations over, board members were free to comment. “In mymind I’m trying to figure out how he could have gotten the tests,” Schexnayder said.

The board decided to go into executive session to discuss the situation.

Once safely tucked away in executive session six board members, minus George Nassar who had to leave for work, probably rehashed the long explanation to come to their decision.

Once back in the open meeting, Richard Reulet made a motion to “uphold the decision of the termination of Mr. Cyril Crutchfield.” His motion wasseconded by LeBlanc.

Octave made a substitute motion to reinstate Crutchfield. Schexnaydertried to second his motion, but because of his position as board chair he couldn’t.

So, Schexnayder passed the gavel to vice chairman Reulet so he could second Octave’s motion. But Reulet couldn’t accept the responsibility aschair because he made the original motion.

Octave’s substitute failed with the lack of a second, so board members voted on the original motion.

The vote to stay with their previous decision to fire Crutchfield passed 4- 2, with Schexnayder and Octave voting no and Nassar being absent.

After the vote, Schexnayder looked over at Crutchfield and attorney Samuel and apologized. “Sorry gentlemen,” he said.During all the hubbub, Jacobs called the state Department of Education to void the tests the students took. Marshall said they will retake them inJune.

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