Robert Sprouse, the former Flagler Palm Coast High School teacher who claimed in a whistleblower action that his contract was not renewed last year only because he persistently raised alarms about the harassment and bullying of students, got a $30,000 settlement from the school board today, and a commitment from the board to investigate disciplinary procedures at FPC–how issues of harassment and bullying are documented and whether students’ complaints are being taken seriously.
The board voted on the settlement at the end of an unusual three-and-a-half-hour grievance hearing this afternoon, largely agreeing to or compromising on nine demands Sprouse outlined after several school board members seemed very concerned by some of the allegations Sprouse was making. Those included written documents of disciplinary matters that would vanish and reports of students whose complaints were ignored, belittled, or not taken seriously. They also included his allegation that school administration discouraged written documentation of such problems involving students. (FlaglerLive first reported the case in October. See: “A ‘Highly Effective’ Teacher Loses His Job at FPC. He Says It Was Retaliation for Whistle-Blowing. District Disagrees.”
“What you have shared with us today is extremely alarming,” School Board member Colleen Conklin told Sprouse as he sat facing the board for the entirety of the hearing, “and I have five pages of notes that I would like to continue to look into to get to the bottom of things you brought up.” Conklin also acknowledged that the board should concede to some of his financial demands resulting from the district’s not renewing Sprouse’s contract at the end of last year, even though he had just been rated a “highly effective” teacher and had taught at FPC’s i3 Academy for two years. “I don’t think you should be put in any kind of position where you’re not able to do your life’s work, I think that’s ridiculous,” Conklin said.
The case was not an outright victory for Sprouse by any means, though it is more of a victory than he likely expected when the hearing began, and an especially significant victory for bullied and harassed students whose voices may not be taken as seriously as they think they should be. At a time when tolerance for any form of harassment is becoming inadmissible, the Sprouse case may spur the district to re-examine its protocols to detect where its procedures or assumptions may be lagging behind new, more rigorous and protective norms.
Sprouse’s case hinged on the ideal and the material: he had actually asked for a full year’s pay and benefits. The board balked at that, eventually agreeing to half the demand–pay and benefits through Dec. 31–after an at-times agonizing 45 minutes of negotiations over Sprouse’s financial demands. The board had initially agreed to reimburse him for up to $3,000 in legal bills, but not more. By then, he’d won the board’s committment to have an outside agency provide sexual harassment training to school employees and to launch a formal investigation of disciplinary procedures.
When School Board member Maria Barbosa expressed appreciation for the issues he’d brought up, but suggested it couldn’t comply with the amount he was asking for, Sprouse unleashed: “You appreciate it after I’ve lost my job, after I’ve lost my livelihood, after I’ve lost my insurance, after I’ve lost the ability to provide for my family, after I’ve lost my integrity, my self-respect. No, no, no. You will pay.”It might have appeared as if Sprouse at that point was pressing an advantage he did not have. But the witnesses who’d spoke, and statements by board members themselves, had provided him more ammunition than he likely thought he’d accumulate during the hearing.
One of the witnesses Sprouse brought forward was a student at the academy whos spoke to the board of the harassment she endured. She got a no-contact order, but it was not enough, and the administration seemed uninterested in following through on other complaints. Her father was there. Board members wanted to hear from him. He described how he at first was “trying to instill in my daughter a sense of strength,” so he “let her deal with it.” But he realized it was a mistake, because she wasn’t taken seriously: she was told others were just “being mean” to her, and in one case–a former student she had dated–an administrator told her that “it’s kind of like you’re divorced now, you’ve got to get over it.”
“If one of my investigators had done that, I’d have fired him on the spot,” said the student’s father, who’d been a Department of Children and Families investigator for 13 years.
School Board member Janet McDonald asked the student if she’d reported her issues through the district’s online reporting system. The student had not, but said that the counsel she’d gotten at school was to report her issues to the dean. She had. But if one of her complaints led to a no-contact order, it stopped there, with no follow-up. When McDonald asked Kerry Sands, the assistant principal at FPC, if staffers “cycle back around” to see how no-contact orders are working, Sands said she did not know.
One of the issues at the heart of Sprouse’s action against the board was the fact that he’d reported the abuse to DCF and had been “outed” by a Flagler County Sheriff’s deputy–a school resource deputy at FPC–even though those who report abuse to DCF are protected from disclosure. Sprouse believes that there was a direct connection between his report to DCF and the school’s eventual decision not to renew his contract. But the school board has no authority in that regard over sheriff’s deputies working on campus. That was one of the reasons Gavin could argue against the whistleblower action’s standing.
But if the whistleblower action technically had no legs to stand on–and only because of the very high bar such actions require to be valid, and the fact that the district, on paper, had done nothing illegal by getting rid of Sprouse–the allegations put forth, some of them backed up by written evidence, were too much for the school board to ignore.
The hearing was actually three hearings in one, though the three parts weaved in and out of each other, at times confusing board members, who were hearing most of the information and the issues raised for the first time. ( “It’s all kind of running together,” School Board member Andy Dance said at one point. But lost paperwork was of special concern to him.)
One segment was the reason for the hearing: whether Sprouse had a legitimate whistleblower action as set out by school policy. School Board Attorney Kristy Gavin told the board he did not, and the board agreed: Sprouse’s contract was not renewed at the end of last year, but neither were the contracts of 13 other employees. Not a high number in a district with 1,700 employees, which suggests that at least some of these employees were released for poor performance. But the law since 2011 permits school boards not to renew teachers’ contracts without cause. Sprouse’s case was unusual because of his seemingly stellar, if brief, tenure. But he finished out the year. Gavin said none of the elements justifying a whistleblower action existed.
Another segment of the case were the allegations of indifference, carelessness, haphazardness or lack of rigor on the part of the administration in addressing harassment or bullying claims. (The harassment was not said to be sexual at any point, though it involved unwanted touching, hugging, snatching and hovering, all of which, in the #MeToo era, would rank as a form of sexual harassment.) Last March, Sprouse reported, an “i3 teacher failed to report a conversation he overheard with students discussing a girl beaten so badly by her boyfriend that there were photos of the marks (according to the conversation). Teacher was adamant that the information not be sent in an email, I obliged and texted [Assistant principal Kerry] Sands instead but after a week without reply emailed the report.” Sprouse was criticized by Sands for reporting harassment or bullying issues in writing, ostensibly because the administration feared–inaccurately–that students’ names could be revealed in press requests for public records. In fact, names are always and legally redacted in accordance with privacy laws before being released to the press. “The administration was more concerned with looking bad in the news than protecting students,” Sprouse said.Sands was among the witnesses this afternoon, though her testimony was limited and, at times, could not answer questions, whether because Sands had not been the i3 director during one of the two years in question, or because she simply couldn’t answer such questions as why there would be no paper trail regarding certain incidents: Sprouse alleges that a number of referrals either he or others he knew had written simply disappeared. The i3 administrator who sustained the most criticism through Sprouse’s accounts, Erin Davis, was not among the witnesses, though she will be part of the internal inquiry the board is seeking.
That second segment of the case proved the most salient for board concerns, over and above Sprouse’s case, as it will now lead to further investigation and, possibly, consequences, though how transparent those investigations and consequences will be will be entirely up to the school board: administrative actions along those lines are never publicized through the district’s otherwise prolific PR channels.
The third segment of today’s hearing was the more bare-knuckle negotiations over how much Sprouse could get, financially, out of the settlement. The board reached that point only when board member Trevor Tucker seized the reins of the meeting, along with Sprouse’s list of nine demands almost three hours into the meeting, and, with some exasperation, went down the demands one by one to see what the board and Sprouse would agree to and what either side would not. Sprouse had presented the list as “non-negotiable.”
Of course, he negotiated, not least because the board had Jerry Copeland, the near legendary negotiator it uses in union bargaining, at the table (the board had just held a closed-door session to discuss union bargaining). Copeland is known to capably break knees with language alone, though in this case even Copeland seemed to throw up his hands at one point. “The fact that we’re going to nickle and dime over negligible amounts speaks a lot of the district,” Sprouse said as the board was balking over his financial demands.
“What I’m trying to do here is reach a deal,” Copeland said, “in my role as a negotiator.”
“Nobody wants to fight you, you brought forth a complaint that’s significant and we’re going to look into it,” Conklin said, adding moments later: “I would like to see a formal investigation into the whole thing. Everything that was brought forward today.”
But Sprouse was talking dollars–the $2,680 he spent in legal fees, the money he was no longer making as a teacher, the cost of health insurance. In the end, he agreed to a sum “not to exceed” $30,000, out of which the district will subtract whatever Sprouse has taken in as unemployment compensation, as “the state does not allow us to have employees unjustly enriched,” Gavin said.
The board voted 4-1, with Trevor Tucker in dissent, to approve the settlement.
Gavin and Sprouse, on opposite sides of the table for the three and a half hours of the hearing, were on the same side after it, working out numbers together. In exchange, Sprouse said he’d drop all actual or potential legal actions against the school board in any venue, though he said he still has a complaint going against the sheriff’s office.
“I’m not super happy,” Sprouse said afterward, “but I’m glad the board seemed to listen more than anybody else has.”
It had been a so-called Level 3 grievance hearing. Sprouse had lost when he took his grievance to Superintendent Jim Tager, and the union, what would have been Level Two, declined to take part, resulting in the board’s role at Level Three. Such hearings are extremely unusual, the last one going back almost a decade, according to Gavin. Sprouse said he was ready to take the matter to court absent a settlement.