Lunch Ladies: The All-American School Cafeteria Heist [3]

“For a long time, I was afraid to speak up because I was ashamed. But I think I did a good thing, not only for myself but for all the women who work there.”

This is the third and final post of my three-part feature story, “Lunch Ladies: The All-American High School Cafeteria Heist.” For the previous post, click below.

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After leaving the hospital and her job at the East Elementary, Torcasio sued Gluck, the town of New Canaan, and New Canaan Board of Education in U.S. District Court for gender discrimination and fostering a hostile work environment.

In his March 2017 order refusing to the defendants’ request dismiss her lawsuit, Judge Alvin Thompson ruled that Torcasio had legitimate claims that should be adjudicated by the courts when she said she was subject to “adverse employment action” on the basis of her gender while at the school, that Gluck had created a hostile work environment and that she had been subjected to the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

In the spring of 2017, Torcasio received an undisclosed settlement from the town and school board. That June, after 23 years on the job, Gluck resigned. “I felt vindicated,” Torcasio told me, “For a long time, I was afraid to speak up because I was ashamed. But I think I did a good thing, not only for myself but for all the women who work there.”

It soon became even more clear that she had paved the way for other lunch ladies to speak out too.

 On November 15, 2017, after visiting the middle school lunchroom and inviting any employee to contact her with concerns, Jo-Ann Keating, New Canaan Public Schools director of finance and operations, was contacted by a lunchroom worker “who described a number of things that were happening in the cafeteria,” Keating later said, “The most significant was very detailed information about very questionable cash handling.”

During a subsequent investigation by Keating and the New Canaan Police Department, more lunch ladies spoke out. One said Pascarelli had told her not to record cash transactions, and made her falsify the deposit slips to show less revenues. When the school upgraded the registers to a computer system, Pascarelli told the lunch ladies to ignore the new protocol and continue letting her count the cash. One woman said she’d seen a drawer full of cash in the office of Wilson, whom other lunch ladies insisted told them to hand over their uncounted cash too.    

In August 2018, Wilson and Pascarelli were arrested and charged with one count of first degree-larceny for allegedly absconding $478,588 in cash from the New Canaan lunchrooms. But because the statute of limitations confined the investigation to only five years — 2012 – 2017 — authorities believe that the actual amount missing might be much higher, given the decades the sisters had been in charge.

After years of pride for having the state’s top lunchrooms, the town reeled. “We are deeply upset by this alleged violation of our trust and the trust of the entire community,” New Canaan Public Schools superintendent Bryan D. Luizzi wrote in a letter to the community.

The sisters, who face 20 years in prison, deny the charges. “I would never take money,” Pascarelli reportedly told the police, “I know better than that.” According to the warrant for her arrest, Wilson told investigators that “the only thing she is guilty of is feeding a child who had no money or giving somebody a cookie.” They declared that it was Gluck, not them, who was really behind the scheme. Wilson said Gluck had demanded that she give him $100 per day in cash from the lunchrooms since 2006.

After further investigation, police discovered that Gluck had made large cash deposits into his bank account through the academic years — but not during the school breaks. Further, the school’s own accounting showed a drastic spike in lunchroom cash intake after Gluck and the sisters had left. “Continuing the established pattern, upon Gluck’s retirement, daily money intake totals increased dramatically,” police said in a statement. “The investigation showed that Gluck conspired with Pascarelli and Wilson to steal Town monies.”

Following their arrests and not guilty pleas, Gluck and the sisters are now out on bond, as they await trial. New Canaan Public Schools spokesperson Michael Horyczun told me that “this matter is currently pending in the courts, and therefore the staff and administration are not at liberty to speak about it at this time.”

New Canaan First Selectman Kevin Moynihan told me that “from the superintendent's point of view this is just an embarrassment and they don't want it.” He added, “It’s just a disappointment in a high-quality town that that kind of thing can happen.”

Torcasio, who lost her husband Frank in 2017, has undergone therapy for PTSD from her treatment at the school. She hopes that taking a stand will inspire more women and immigrants in similar positions to speak up as well. “I think the minorities need to be believed,” she told me.

Such gospel is spreading around New Canaan. One Sunday morning after Gluck’s arrest, Reverend John T. Morehouse stood before his congregation at the Unitarian Church in Westport, Connecticut, and told them the story of the stolen money at New Canaan’s lunchrooms. For him, it illustrated “the seductive power of expectation,” he said.

“It was no accident that anomalies in the cash collection at the schools evaded officials for so long,” he told the crowd, “When everything is going well, why question the goose that is laying the golden eggs?”

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