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Palm Coast Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2019 6 months ago

School district to pay up to $30,000 in settlement to former teacher, investigate FPC disciple procedures

Robert Sprouse, a former social studies teacher at the i3 Academy, alleged that his contract was not renewed because he had complained about the school's handling of student disciplinary issues.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

The Flagler County School Board has agreed to pay a former teacher up to $30,000 in a settlement for lost wages, insurance and legal fees after the teacher alleged the district had declined to renew his contract as retaliation for his complaints about the handling of student disciplinary issues.

“What you have shared with us today is extremely alarming, and I have five pages of notes that I would like to continue to look into to get to the bottom of some of the things that you brought up.”

— COLLEEN CONKLIN, School Board member, addressing former teacher Robert Sprouse

The board, in a grievance hearing Nov. 5, agreed to a number of demands by former teacher Robert Sprouse, committing to investigate his allegations concerning the handling of harassment and bullying complaints at Flagler Palm Coast High School, and to contract with an outside provider to provide sexual harassment training for staff.

"I don't believe I’m asking anything unreasonable," Sprouse said during the hearing. "I’m just asking for damages … so I can get back on my feet…and I can find employment. Because as it is right now, I’m not finding employment."

The $30,000 was less than Sprouse had requested. He'd sought a full year of salary and the equivalent of a year's worth of insurance payments, plus reimbursement for the $2,685 he'd spent in legal fees. The board instead agreed to cover his salary equivalent up through the end of this year, minus the amount he is receiving from unemployment.

The vote on the proposed settlement was 4-1, with board member Trevor Tucker voting no, explaining that he was not comfortable with the district paying Sprouse $30,000 and was concerned that it could set a precedent for future cases. 

The board did not find that Sprouse met the state-established definition of a whistleblower, although board member Colleen Conklin called his allegations "extremely concerning." 

Designation as a whistleblower, board attorney Kristy Gavin said during the meeting, would have required that he'd been reporting illegal activity by district staff. That was not the case, she said. In addition, she said, the district had a right to not renew Sprouse's contract without cause. He was one of 14 staff members whose contracts were not renewed last year.

Sprouse had been a social studies teacher at the i3 academy at Flagler Palm Coast High School. He'd received "highly effective" ratings in the two years he'd taught there, but, this past year, he disagreed with the school's handling of disciplinary situations, including one in which multiple female students alleged that a male student was harassing them and touching them without their permission.

The district had counseled the male student and put in place no-contact orders to keep him away from the girls, but complaints continued.

Sprouse at one point filed a complaint with the Department of Children and Families and the Flagler County Sheriff's Office. But although DCF complaints are supposed to be confidential, a School Resource Officer revealed to the school administration that the complaint had originated with Sprouse — a fact that Sprouse believes led to his nonrenewal.

School administrators had also objected to the fact that Sprouse had used email to inform a school administrator about another, unrelated student matter, rather than reporting it in person: He was told that communication by email could risk confidential student information, because emails can be the subject of public records requests. Information released in public records requests, however, is first screened by the school district's attorney, and identifying information is redacted prior to release.

Sprouse, in a statement presented to board members, wrote that student complaints about serious harassment had been brushed off by school administrators, and that referrals turned in concerning sexual harassment and anti-Semitic jokes by students had simply disappeared from the school's records.

He filed a complaint about his nonrenewal with the Florida Commission on Human Relations, but that was dismissed over a jurisdiction issue, School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin said.

Since then, Sprouse said at the hearing, he's had trouble finding work: Application procedures for teaching positions require applicants to state whether they've been non-renewed, he said, and he suspected that answering in the affirmative was causing potential employers to lose interest.

School Board member Colleen Conklin thought the district should do something to ensure that Sprouse's ability to find other employment isn't unnecessarily impeded.

"I do believe that there are some of your conditions that we should discuss, to look at offering," she said. "I don't think that you should be put in any kind of position where you are not able to do your life’s work; I think that's ridiculous."

One of Sprouse's demands had been that the district remove the letter of nonrenewal from his file and replace it with a statement that he left voluntarily. He'd also requested that the district grant him a letter of recommendations according to his specifications. The district could not do that, Gavin said — the nonrenewal letter is a public record and can not just be eliminated — but it could, with Sprouse's written permission, release his "highly effective" evaluations from both years of teaching.

As part of the agreement, Sprouse agreed to drop any legal complaints against the district.

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