Melvyn Sprowson’s history of alleged student sex abuse in Los Angeles was an open book for any prospective employer, but Clark County school officials chose not to read it, LA’s school chief said Wednesday.
The Las Vegas kindergarten teacher charged with kidnapping a 16-year-old girl got his job at Wengert Elementary School three months after resigning under pressure from the Los Angeles Unified School District, where he faced a slew of accusations involving student sexual abuse.
Los Angeles school officials, who sought to fire Melvyn Sprowson, would have told Clark County School District officials all about Sprowson – if someone had only asked, said Los Angeles Superintendent John Deasy.
“We concluded beyond any doubt that this teacher shouldn’t be in a classroom,” Deasy told the Review-Journal on Wednesday.
Sprowson was charged with first-degree kidnapping after a girl reported missing to Henderson police on Aug. 29, was found living in his home. Prosecutors said in court documents that Sprowson gave the girl a sexually transmitted disease. He’s being held at the Clark County Detention Center on $650,000 bail.
Before the 45-year-old teacher moved to Las Vegas, he faced sex abuse accusations in Los Angeles that did not result in criminal charges. The Los Angeles district in 2012 unsuccessfully petitioned the state to revoke Sprowson’s teaching certification for “immoral or unprofessional conduct,” as allowed under California education code.
In its petition, the Los Angeles district submitted pages of statements from a half-dozen of Sprowson’s female fourth and fifth-grade students claiming sexual abuse.
One student claimed Sprowson forced her hands down his pants, beneath his underwear. Three girls said he asked them if they had their period.
District documents also claimed Sprowson videotaped students while working at their desks and showed them a pornographic video. He was also accused of frequently calling a student on her cellphone.
But when Sprowson applied for a teaching job in the Clark County School District, Los Angeles district officials said they weren’t contacted. Deasy said his district keeps a detailed record of all calls from districts seeking references for former teachers. It closely tracks teachers such as Sprowson who have clean criminal records but tarnished district records, so future employers won’t be in the dark.
“I don’t want it happening to me or anyone else,” said Deasy, of hiring a teacher with a questionable background.
He asserts the Los Angeles district did all in its power to keep Sprowson out of a classroom.
The California district received an allegation of sexual abuse involving Sprowson on Nov. 1, 2007, and removed him from class the next day. The district immediately called the Los Angeles police to investigate. It sought Sprowson’s dismissal. It tried to revoke his California teaching license. All that would’ve been clear in any reference given for him.
“We did everything we could and more,” Deasy said. “There is no question.”
Yet one question remains: Did Clark County do enough to check out Sprowson?
A QUESTION OF VETTING
The specifics of what the Clark County district did to vet Sprowson and what was learned before offering him a kindergarten class in April 2012 are unclear. District spokeswoman Kirsten Searer said Monday that personnel privacy laws prevent the district from revealing specifics of his application and references.
In general, the district won’t proceed with an applicant if their reference from a previous supervisor raises concerns, Searer said.
When told Wednesday that Los Angeles Unified has no record of a reference call from Clark County, Searer said Clark County did contact the reference provided by Sprowson, both by email and phone. The reference, who claimed to be Sprowson’s previous and only supervisor, did not disclose information about the accusations the teacher faced, Searer said.
“We can’t control individuals who aren’t honest or forthcoming,” said Searer, who would not say who the reference was.
The district doesn’t require applicants to provide work phone numbers for references and allows cellphone numbers to be given instead, she said.
The reference must also fill out a confidential reference form, but Clark County doesn’t require it to be notarized, assuring that the person is who they claim to be, Searer said.
But Clark County’s teacher application requires three references, not one. Searer declined to comment on whether Sprowson supplied two more references, or whether the district called them.
“I can’t give specifics about a personnel file,” she said.
Deasy said Los Angeles would’ve provided Sprowson’s full employment history had it been asked. It shows Sprowson was not allowed in a classroom from 2007 to 2012 while being investigated.
“That would be a huge red flag,” Deasy said.
However, Clark County staff only asked for Sprowson’s salary history and employment start and end dates in Los Angeles, Searer said.
“We do our best to fully investigate every employee we hire,” Searer said.
That being said, the district is now doing a “thorough review of its policies and procedures” for hiring, Searer said.
“We want to assure parents we’re looking into our procedures to ensure student safety,” said Searer. The district hired 2,000 new teachers this school year.
A CALL FOR MORE CARE
Clark County let itself get duped and is a victim of its own “careless” vetting process, said Terri Miller, president of Stop Educator Sexual Abuse, Misconduct and Exploitation, a Nevada-based nonprofit advocacy group.
“They’re not asking the right questions,” said Miller, emphasizing that Sprowson isn’t the first example of a careless hire by Clark County schools, just the latest. “Sadly, this doesn’t surprise me at all.”
She used former district teacher Fred Kober as an example. Clark County hired him in 2004 as a special education teacher at Coronado High School in Henderson. After two years, he was suspended for lying on his job application, which was discovered only because he was up for promotion to dean at Liberty High School.
In 1987, Kober had resigned from his position as an assistant high school principal after being accused of 14 incidents of inappropriately touching three female students, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. A teacher who worked with Kober also alleged that he inappropriately touched her.
The Ramsey County attorney’s office, citing a lack of evidence, did not press charges against Kober.
Job candidates without a criminal history would have cleared the FBI background check Clark County does for all new teachers.
“FBI checks are a false sense of security,” Miller said. “If there’s no criminal history, nothing will come up.
Districts can’t rely on FBI checks alone, said Deasy, noting that Los Angeles also does them. But leg work must be done, as well.
Learning of Sprowson’s history wouldn’t be difficult, Deasy said. He was “anything but low profile,” and was investigated by Los Angeles police and the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, he said.
Sprowson’s history spanned five years, to Nov. 1, 2007. A student who had regular meetings with the school psychologist regarding the death of her brother admitted that she was missing meetings because Sprowson disapproved of them. She went on to claim Sprowson was “touching some of the girls in class,” according to court documents.
Los Angeles police officers went to Sprowson’s school, Magnolia Elementary School, the next day, handcuffed the teacher and took him in for questioning. He was reassigned away from students as police investigated.
Police identified six female students as possible victims. He was accused of touching their thighs, chests and buttocks, according to documents the school district sent state officials in trying to have Sprowson’s license revoked. LA school officials readily provided the papers to the Review-Journal on Wednesday.
By 2008, charges still hadn’t been filed and the district attorney’s office asked Los Angeles police to investigate further. A parent filed a lawsuit against Sprowson, which the district settled for $50,000 in 2010.
By then, the district attorney had dropped the case after receiving a letter from one of Sprowson’s students recanting her story.
Still, the district recommended to a personnel review board in January 2011 that Sprowson be dismissed. The board approved suspension without pay. By December of that year, Sprowson agreed to resign with an attorney-recommended settlement from the district for back pay.
Sprowson’s last day in the Los Angeles district was Jan. 31, 2012. But the district wanted to make sure his days in teaching were done, and asked for certification revocation.
The California Commission on Teacher Credentialing can “publicly reprove, revoke or suspend” a teacher’s credential “for immoral or unprofessional conduct,” according to state code.
But it did nothing to Sprowson, allowing him to return to the classroom.
Deasy called that “appalling.”
“We strongly recommended that the Commission on Teacher Credentialing revoke his credential, which, among others things, would have prevented his being hired by other districts,” Deasy said.
A spokesperson for the commission said it’s illegal to provide information on any case or disclose why no action was taken. The commission is only allowed to say whether someone is credentialed.
Sprowson is currently licensed both in California and in Nevada.
“He never went back into the classroom though,” said Deasy, who then corrected himself, adding “in Los Angeles.”
Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0279.