School administrator suspended in criminal investigation denies wrongdoing

When Priscilla Rocha walked into to work Wednesday morning, Las Vegas police were a few steps behind — with a search warrant in hand.

Rocha on Thursday told the Review-Journal that over the course of the day officers seized all of her files, interviewed her staff and “took pictures of everything” in the Clark County School District’s office of Adult English Language Acquisition Services, which Rocha has overseen since 2005. The office is at 4204 Channel 10 Drive, near Flamingo Road and Eastern Avenue.

Police interrogated Rocha from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., telling the 24-year School District employee that she’s under investigation for misuse of taxpayer funds. Rocha’s program provides non- and limited-English speaking adults with skills needed to become self-sufficient and productive members of the community.

Police would give Rocha, 66, five-minute bathroom breaks while she was being questioned and offered her pizza for lunch, she said.

“But I didn’t drink water or anything,” she said from her home, where she was “assigned” by the district while on paid suspension. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m not worried. I’m just wondering. Who? What? Why?”

District officials have not confirmed whether anyone else in the department is under investigation. However, Coordinator Esther Vargas was also assigned to home on paid suspension Wednesday, according to district spokeswoman Melinda Malone. The 14 other department employees listed in the district’s administrative directory remain under normal employment status. The department is funded by state grants to the tune of $1.09 million annually.

The district also has not commented on the reasons for Rocha’s or Vargas’ paid suspensions, or what prompted the search. Rocha earns an annual salary of $106,260 plus $2,300 in longevity pay, according to district officials.

Las Vegas police confirmed the joint investigation with Clark County school police into a potential misuse of public funds but isn’t releasing any details, according to Las Vegas police spokesman Lawrence Hadfield.

“As far as we’re concerned, it’s an ongoing investigation,” Hadfield said Thursday morning. No charges have been filed, and Rocha was not arrested.

Rocha said the officers told her that she has been accused of using public money to buy technology, including iPads and computers, and giving the equipment to people as gifts. She explained that students and staff use district computers for the program, but they can’t keep them.

Rocha also said police said their inquiry included an allegation that $1,200 raised through a raffle of district-owned computers went to help a student’s sister who had been deported. Rocha said she did hold the raffle, but the money raised was spent on costume supplies for a school gang prevention program.

“The costumes are stored in district portables. I have nothing to hide. It’s all in my records and inventory,” Rocha said.

District Chief of Staff Kirsten Searer said school officials received a complaint in December 2013 regarding possible misuse of public funds in the program for adults with limited English skills. School police conducted a preliminary investigation, then called in the Metropolitan Police Department, she said.

Rocha said she thinks the complaint may have been from an instructor she didn’t rehire in 2013, largely because he lacked a teaching license.

“He threatened me,” said Rocha, recalling that the former instructor had met with her boss in an effort to be re-hired and to get Rocha in trouble. When that didn’t work, she said, “he would call me and say, ‘This is not going to end here.’”

Active in Nevada politics, Rocha was elected to the Nevada State Board of Education in 1998 and lost her re-election bid in 2002. She is the Nevada state director for LULAC, the League of United Latin American Citizens.

“I just want you to understand one thing,” said Rocha, choking up. “Everything I did was for the families and students — the community.”

Rocha started her career in the district as a fourth-grade teacher at Hewetson Elementary School, near Bonanza Road and Bruce Street. She was also a fifth-grade teacher before being promoted to a coordinator’s job within her current department in 2001. She was promoted to program director in 2005. The program offers English classes, family assistance referrals, notary services and referrals for help with immigration, housing and domestic violence.

Contact reporter Trevon Milliard at tmilliard@reviewjournal.com or702-383-0279.