#students | #parents | A “Highly Effective” Teacher Loses His Job at FPC. He Says It Was Retaliation for Whistle-Blowing. District Disagrees.

The i3 Academy is a school within a school at Flagler Palm Coast High, with more than 200 students enrolled. (Facebook)

Robert Sprouse was a social studies teacher at Flagler Palm Coast High School’s i3 Academy for two years–from August 2017 to May 2019. His contract was not renewed despite evaluations that found him “highly effective” two years running, among other considerable achievements, state commendations and features in local media.

Sprouse is claiming in a whistleblower action that his contract was not renewed because of the way he reported on a male senior’s repeatedly inappropriate behavior toward several girls–to school officials, the sheriff’s office and the Department of Children and Families. The girls, who reported issues over several months this year, had felt uncomfortable in the boy’s presence because of the senior’s unwanted touching or harassment. To address the issue, the school imposed mutual no-contact orders involving both the student and his alleged victims.

Sprouse says the district did not handle the matter aggressively enough while taking him to task–and, in fact, counseling him–for documenting the issues in writing instead of verbally addressing the issues with his supervisors.

The school district’s position is that it did all that was required, that it disciplined and restricted the offending boy–who has since graduated–that it protected the girls, and chose not to renew Sprouse’s contract the same way that it routinely chooses not to renew numerous teachers’ contracts. But the contract wasn’t renewed, the district states, also because Sprouse had a few issues with the administration that were not related to the allegations of harassment or misconduct. (The issues were minor. None resulted in discipline.)

The case and its copious documentation from both sides opens an unusually detailed window into the district’s handling of allegations of sexual harassment involving students, its handling of a faculty member who reported the issue, and its implementation of procedures that raise at least some questions about the district’s disturbing discomfort with written documentation–and its mis-characterization of such documentation in the context of privacy and public record laws, at least to Sprouse.

“I was advised by teachers and administration not to put in writing potential child abuse claims,” Sprouse wrote in answer to questions by the Florida Commission on Human Relations, which is investigating his case. “As a mandatory reporter it is my job to report anything I see or [hear] that may constitute child endangerment or neglect.” Because he did so, he believes his contract was not renewed. (Teachers, among other district employees, are required by law to report suspicions of child abuse.)

Sprouse is not looking to have the decision reversed (he got another job in the Orlando area). But he wants the non-renewal letter removed from his record, and he wants the district to adopt a more rigorous system of training staff on addressing sexual harassment. “I merely ask that these matters be investigated and dealt with to protect children in the future,” he wrote the commission.

Sprouse is also going through the district’s own grievance procedure, having gotten no satisfaction at the first two levels. On Sept. 27, Jewel Johnson, the district’s chief human resources officer, informed Sprouse by mail that he would have a grievance hearing before the Flagler County School Board at 11 a.m. on Oct. 15, what would be considered a Level 3 grievance hearing.

The two page letter does not tell him where the meeting is to take place. Nor is that meeting of the board–a public meeting–noticed on the school board’s website, though the board has three other meetings that day, all of which are noticed: a 9 a.m. superintendent search meeting, a 1 p.m. workshop and a 6 p.m. meeting. All three are noticed on the board’s web calendar. All three are also noticed on paper in the lobby of the Government Services Building. The 11 a.m. meeting with Sprouse is not (and still wasn’t as of Wednesday morning.) Kristy Gavin, the school board attorney, was under the impression that it had been posted at the GSB, and said it would be posted on the web after an interview with a reporter. (At least one school board member will not be in attendance at any of the meetings because of a scheduling conflict.)

The board at that meeting will hear from Sprouse and any witnesses he wishes to present. He says that since the district scheduled the meeting for 11 a.m. (he tried to have the time changed), “anybody that was a witness to this is teaching or in class,” and the district, according to Sprouse, is not letting teachers or students out of school for the meeting. “They scheduled it at a time when getting a witness will be impossible.”

Gavin says it’s not quite accurate. “The one thing I will say we did tell him is we did not believe that a student should be losing instructional time, because there are allegedly other people that are not students” who may be witnesses and could relate the same issues, Gavin said (though no faculty member could describe what a student was experiencing at the hands of the allegedly offending boy, or speak for a student regarding no-contact orders). “And my understanding is he agreed that it would not be in their best interest to have students leave their instructional time.”

The latest problems with the student began last January. (He’d had issues last year.)

A timeline prepared by Erin Davis, dean of students (and headlined “Documentation,” with the student’s name in bold letters, which clearly contradicts the school’s claim of uneasiness with written documentation and students’ names), in June lists a series of problems with the boy. One girl reported that he’d had “inappropriate conversations with her (and others) via social media,” that she’d blocked him, and that he “kept trying to hug her,” had unhooked her glasses from her shirt and taken them, that “he makes her uncomfortable and that there is a prior history with him and her sister.” No-contact orders were put in place.

Two days later, a girl who’d had a no-contact order in place the previous year, regarding the same student, requested to have it reinstated. Other students came forward with similar issues. “I have also heard he is doing stuff to other people he did to me in the past,” she wrote in her voluntary statement, which is then used to determine whether a no-contact order is warranted. Other such statements refer to “unwanted touching,” “harassing behaviors,” grabbing, “touching another female student,” “invading personal space.”

In late January the problem student was “counseled about personal space and comments,” according to Davis’s documentation. “Determined that his fourth period class should be switched as several of the students shared this period and not a good situation for all parties involved,” Davis wrote. “Asked [the student] to determine which online class he would like to take so that his schedule could be changed.” His schedule was changed, “he was removed from the i3 setting and became a Teacher Aide in the Student Hub.” But not entirely.

Problems again arose in April, when a girl reported that the student was in “her family time at i3,” allegedly breaking the no-contact order by being in the same room. But the “family time” teacher determined that the boy’s presence in the room was fine, because the student was part of the “family.” The teacher determined there was no violation.

Around the same time yet another girl reported that the student “came up behind me and got uncomfortably close,” according to her statement. “I could feel him against me and I immediately turned around and asked what he was doing, but he walked away and I messaged my teacher after school to inform her what had happened.” Another no-contact order was imposed.

Emails between Sprouse, FPC Assistant Principal Kerri Sands and Gavin point to a problem in March involving a girl who’d had issues with a different boy. She’d requested to be kept separated from the boy, and faculty developed a plan to accommodate her. Her teacher, according to Sands, had “already worked out a plan to not have them seating near each other ever,” Sands wrote Sprouse, “and she is good with this plan and says it is working.” But Sprouse wasn’t comfortable with the arrangement. (The girl in this case was deemed the aggressor. An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that the boy was the same individual as in the other cases.)

“I just want to go on record that I am not okay with this arrangement and do not think this is benefiting her mental health in any way shape or form,” Sprouse wrote Sands, including several other faculty members in the exchange. He explained why, without mentioning any students’ names, and adds: “I realize this is not my call to make but if something happens, I want it made clear my opposition to this decision.”

In her email to Sprouse, Sands, who oversees the i3 Academy (where more than 200 students attend school) tells the teacher that “emails are public records so if you need to say something super personal, just come see me.” That’s accurate, but not complete: numerous exemptions legally exempt student-identifying information from otherwise public records, and Gavin examines all non-routine public record requests to ensure that the records are scrubbed of all exempt information. There is no district rule or policy, and certainly no law, against faculty or other school employees documenting issues in writing, whether by email or any other means, though many administrators often will use only initials when referring to students in electronic communications as an extra precaution. (Sands also uses first names in references to students involved in the ongoing issue, at least in documentation prepared by Gavin.)

Still, Sprouse’s written documentation became an issue.

Two weeks later, Sprouse sought to report “a delayed sex offense” to DCF, which transferred him to the sheriff’s office to report the incident to law enforcement. The allegation is by all indications an exaggeration: nothing in the record or in the girls’ reports of inappropriate behavior appears to rise to the level of a “sex offense” or abuse, though Sprouse says he was concerned about the pattern and the “possibility” that there could be abuse, especially if the boy remained in the presence of other students.

A sheriff’s report notes that Sprouse “was unhappy about how a previous incident was handled by staff.” But the sheriff’s report, which is not extensive, summarizes the resolutions of previous issues through no-contact orders and notes that both students and parents were satisfied. (Sprouse was also upset that after he reported the problem to DCF, a sheriff’s deputy assigned to FPC “outed” him by revealing to the administration that Sprouse had made a report to the sheriff’s office and to DCF–a violation of a person’s right to remain anonymous when reporting such issues.)

Gavin says that as a result, both DCF and the sheriff essentially investigated and found nothing there.

But Gavin conceded to the Commission on Human Relations that written documentation can be a problem: Sprouse, she wrote, “was reminded that pursuant to FERPA and public record laws” [FERPA is the federal student privacy law] “if he needs to say something super personal, he should come see the administrator. The administration documented his concerns regarding a student and her well-being and took action on the matter, but as stated above, the administration reminded [Sprouse] he should not have documented his concerns in writing (via email) due to public record consideration.”

Gavin in an interview said Sprouse was not reprimanded but “he was counseled at that meeting that they would prefer him not to do that, it’s not a best practice,” meaning refer to students in emails.

Sprouse’s position is that his contract was not renewed as retaliation for the way he reported the problems in April. But Gavin points to his last evaluation, conducted on April 26, where he was found “highly effective.” “If in fact the District retaliated against [Sprouse] he would not have been found to be highly effective,” she wrote the commission. In an interview, she said: “We’ve had situations where we had brand new teachers who were amazing who were let go because we didn’t have a spot for them the next year, so the fact that you’re rated highly effective doesn’t automatically mean you’ll be retained.”

The district could cite only minor issues with Sprouse’s tenure, if that: In one case, a student complained to him that she’d been suspended, and he responded that she should consider it an extended break, a response the school administration found inappropriate. In another instance, a student had alleged that Sprouse had made inappropriate comments to him, but the administration agreed that the student had a tendency to himself make inappropriate comments. A third instance involved the same issue the administration would raise with Sprouse regarding the behavior of the harassing student: he’d documented his concerns about a student’s classroom plan, and was counseled against doing so–again, an administrative call against written documentation that raises more concerning questions about administrative protocols than about the teacher’s reporting. The school eventually acknowledged that the issues Sprouse raised about the classroom plan  were valid.

Gavin says it’ll be up to the school board to determine whether Sprouse has standing as a whistleblower–a determination that will almost certainly go against Sprouse, since it will rely in part on Gavin’s analysis: she does not see him as a whistleblower.

“The question is what is the event that he was a whistleblower about,” she asks. “We were the ones to do the non-contact orders, so we did take action, and my understanding is when it was reported and the police followed up with the parent, the parent also said they were satisfied with the school district’s handling of the matter. So the question becomes, what event did he report that we did not act on?”

To Sprouse, however, the district took one other step–it got rid of him. But it’s his burden to establish a causal link between the issue involving the student and the end of his contract. That link, Gavin says, doesn’t exist. Sprouse disagrees. The board will weigh in, as might the state commission.

In early April, James Poindexter, an attorney he’d retained at the time, told him that based on documentation provided, he did appear to have whistleblower protection. “Any public employee who discloses, in a signed written complaint, concerns about malfeasance, misfeasance, or gross neglect of duty is [protected from retaliation under Florida statute.” (The district’s position is that none of those three elements are present.) “At this juncture, you could certainly file suit against the school district in an attempt to remedy the retaliation you have already experienced,” though the attorney cautioned that the retaliation had not at that point resulted in financial loss.

In fact, Sprouse was still employed when he got that letter from the attorney, and had yet to receive his “highly effective” evaluation, which is why Gavin’s position is that Sprouse’s timeline does not “correlate to the actual timeline of events to assert a whistleblower Act disclosure.” Sprouse says he’s continuing to pursue the matter because he doubts he’s the only teacher who’s found himself or herself in a similar position.

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