HAINES CITY, Fla. — A teacher and coach accused of sending an inappropriate Snapchat photo to a student was able to get another job at a Tampa Bay-area school while already under investigation by the state of Florida.
And then, Wayne Ricks was arrested again. A certificate that allows him to continue teaching remained valid.
“The Education Practices Commission takes final agency action against teacher’s certificates,” said Lisa Forbess, the commission's executive director. “Once the case is investigated by the Department of Education and the commissioner finds probable cause, then the case comes before the Education Profession Commission (EPC) for judication.”
The 2018 case 10 Investigates is looking into — allegations involving Ricks — still hasn’t made it in front of the EPC. We even asked them, “Do you guys have anything to do with how long a case takes to get in front of you guys?”
Forbess said, “The only part we have is once it’s filed with us after probable cause is found, and it's ready to go to a hearing, then we set the hearing calendar.”
“We trusted a person to take care of children,” said a parent of a student who asked us to hide their identity to protect their child. “I never expected that they wouldn't be safe around somebody, especially a coach, a teacher.
“When all of it happened, it surprised us. It made us angry.”
The child was allegedly given gifts by Ricks, a Poinciana High School teacher and basketball coach, which included an iPhone retailing for $699.99 plus tax.
“The niceness this person was showing was actually what's called grooming,” said the parent.
Ricks, according to documents from the state and the school in Kissimmee, Florida, also transported students without parental permission and sent an inappropriate photo via Snapchat. In 2018, Ricks was charged in Osceola County courts for transmitting harassing materials to a minor.
At the same time, the Florida Department of Education started its own investigation into the allegations to determine whether there was probable cause to act against his teaching license.
And while the courts found him not guilty of sending the photo, “He got off on a Snapchat technicality with the jury,” said the parent. The Department of Education ultimately found him guilty of sending the photo, as well as kissing a student and buying them gifts, but that wasn’t until two years after his arrest.
The probable cause came down from the state on Feb. 11, 2021 — a week after he was arrested on accusations he sexually battered a student multiple times in a classroom closet at Haines City High School in Polk County. The two would spend time with each other outside of school, as well, according to police.
“I couldn't believe it at first, but then I believed it because I actually warned them that it would happen again. I wrote an email to the Department of Education,” the parent said.
Teacher's certificate still valid even under investigation
The state statute says the department shall immediately investigate any legally-sufficient complaint that involves misconduct by any certified personnel which affects the health, safety or welfare of a student — the problem? There is no specific amount of time for when an investigation is supposed to happen.
10 Investigates went through dozens of other teachers' disciplinary actions from across the state who were found guilty of harassing or inappropriately touching a student or employee and found most of them took more than a year before action was taken on the certificate.
That means those teachers can continue to work despite being under investigation.
One teacher was found guilty of putting his hands down another teacher’s shirt and squeezing her breasts, but the education commissioner at the time came to that conclusion a year after the accusations.
Another teacher was accused of having students sit on his lap and making inappropriate comments. Probable cause, in this case, came two years after the investigation began.
We tried getting answers from Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran about the length of these investigations and why a teacher under investigation for kissing a student would be able to get hired amid the process.
We tracked him down at a press conference in Tampa.
“If you want to reach out today, I’ll talk to my office...” said Corcoran, who mentioned the Florida Legislature and DeSantis' Administration has pushed for a "bad actors" list to keep track of accused offenders.
We called and emailed for a month after that conversation, no response and no interview.
“I believe they pushed this aside, and they did not follow through that they should have. They are responsible for this happening. For them to not stop that right from the beginning led to minors becoming victims,” said the parent.
Audit shows Polk County Schools did not check references
The questions don’t end with the Department of Education. 10 Investigates also wanted to know how this teacher and basketball coach was able to get hired in Polk County with this investigation.
His certificate was active, but wouldn’t his past have been a red flag during background checks? According to an audit, the ball was dropped on some background checks.
A January 2021 audit by Florida’s auditor general found that background checks in Polk County Public Schools needed enhancement. While they never named Ricks by name, the dates surrounding the individual in the report match the dates of Ricks’ hiring.
The audit says the district never contacted any of the teacher’s references. It goes on to say the district going forward should make sure three references are made and background screenings are conducted.
“No, thank you. We provided you guys with a written statement,” said Frederick Heid, the Superintendent of Polk County Schools when we asked him to comment about the audit and the hiring of Ricks.
The district sent the following statement:
“All PCPS employees are required to undergo and pass the following background check requirements: Level 1 local and Level 2 FBI and NCIC (National Crime Information Center). These background checks were conducted in accordance with state and district polices on the individual referenced in the audit report prior to his employment. At the time, this individual did not have a prior background offense that would have automatically disqualified him from employment.
“The candidate had an active and eligible certificate at the time he was hired, otherwise he would not have been eligible for employment. In light of the audit report, our personnel investigators are now scrutinizing applications for whether an applicant has been the subject of a previous investigation and if this should disqualify them for employment. Previously, the hiring administrator was responsible for screening the application for this review.”
We tried interviewing the elected official whose district covers Haines City High School.
We tried contacting district staff, at her request, but without answers, we also tried to speak with her outside a board workshop, asking, “Parents want to know — what you are doing to make sure students are safe?”
“No, I think you, the media, want to know. Thank you. Excuse me. I'm done. No, our staff will handle that, thank you. Oh my God, how disrespectful. How can you be so disrespectful towards us?” said Lori Cunningham, the elected school board member for the Polk County School District.
We explained to her that the district denied our interview request and wanted to hear from a board member. She continued to call us disrespectful as we searched for answers.
“They are all responsible for this other child having this happen,” said the parent. “It ruined us. There needs to be change, more checks and balances put in place. These are our children, these are our future.”
We reached out one last time to the Education Practices Commission and they say they still do not have the case regarding Ricks and the probable cause out of Osceola County.