Lawsuit Challenges CMS Scrutiny Of Volunteers, Vendors

Aug 22, 2019

This week Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools faced troubling allegations about its past, even as leaders try to focus on school safety for the coming year. A lawsuit says CMS overlooked reports of child abuse against a private after-school operator in 2013. That man is now behind bars after being charged with taking indecent liberties with a 6-year-old student last year.

It was troubling enough when Ricardo Mata, the longtime operator of a Spanish-language after-school program, was charged with sexually assaulting a 6-year-old Eastover Elementary student. The offenses reportedly took place at the girl’s school when she was a kindergartner and first-grader.

But a lawsuit filed by the girl’s family Tuesday claims CMS officials investigated Mata in 2013 after receiving a report accusing him of molesting a child at Matthews Elementary School. According to that suit, CMS learned that Mata also had been accused of fondling a child at a Charlotte private school in 2009 and had two convictions on unrelated charges that were dismissed on appeal.

Copies of CMS emails provided by the family’s lawyer, Alex Heroy, back up that account.

CMS didn’t pursue the Matthews Elementary case, didn’t revoke Mata’s access to schools and didn’t tell parents or principals that there were signs of trouble, Heroy says.

Heroy says his Freedom of Information Act request turned up "really scary information, you know, no parent would want their child unsupervised around him, and yet that’s exactly what happened. And it could have been stopped."

It’s worth noting that Mata has not been convicted of molesting or assaulting children. He’s been in jail since March of 2018 awaiting trial. Mata’s public defender, Peter Nicholson, said it would be inappropriate for him to comment on either the criminal charges or the civil suit.

Superintendent Earnest Winston declined to comment at a back-to-school news briefing Wednesday morning.

"I’ve not had a chance to actually read the lawsuit," Winston said, "but it is a standard practice in the district not to comment on any active or pending litigation."

Mata and his wife opened PlaySpanish, a for-profit after-school and summer program, in 1997, according to news accounts at the time of Mata’s arrest. He started offering his program in CMS schools soon afterward, according to the lawsuit.

PlaySpanish was a welcome option in a city with a booming Hispanic population. Eventually, about 15 CMS elementary schools would host the program, the suit says.

School board member Margaret Marshall says she can’t discuss the suit, but she’s familiar with the program.

"PlaySpanish is something that parents have used for a long time. My children were in it as well," she said, adding that they "didn’t have any problems."

In 2018, CMS described Mata as a volunteer and independent contractor who got space in schools through the district’s community use policy. That’s a program that allows churches, sports teams and community groups to rent CMS space. But unlike most of those groups, PlaySpanish never paid for space, the lawsuit says.

Ricardo Mata
Credit Mecklenburg County Sheriff's Office

In October 2013, the CMS Police Department got a complaint about Mata from a Matthews Elementary student, emails provided by the lawyer shows.  A CMS officer did a background check. That officer discovered that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police had investigated a 2009 report that Mata fondled a 6-year-old girl at the private British American School. The district attorney’s office declined to prosecute, but Mata was not invited back to that school, according to an email from the CMS investigator.

The 2013 emails indicate Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain was the person making decisions about Mata’s continued access to schools. Chamberlain retired in 2014, and his wife says because of health problems he doesn’t recall the Mata decision.

In October 2013, Chamberlain emailed Deputy Superintendent Ann Clark questioning whether Mata’s access should be terminated. Two days later Chamberlain reported that security staff had concluded the investigation. Chamberlain’s email didn’t discuss specifics, but said CMS should start requiring background checks on all after-school providers immediately.

In November, Mata emailed Chamberlain thanking him for “your continuing trust and for understanding that this claim is untrue and unsubstantiated.”

Clark, who later became superintendent, did not return a call Thursday seeking comment on the suit. Heroy said he didn't find email evidence that any sitting superintendent signed off on decisions about PlaySpanish. Heath Morrison led the district in 2013.

Fred Monroe, a lawyer who’s working with Heroy on the suit, says the emails provide a lot of information about what happened, but not why.

"We don’t know the answer to that," he said, "but we’re going to find out."

Mata kept conducting programs at schools. The emails obtained by the lawyers show that Shamrock Gardens Elementary School paid PlaySpanish just over $16,000 in the years after the 2013 investigation. Normally families paid for their children to attend.

New complaints against Mata came in 2018. In March, he was charged with sexually assaulting a 7-year-old girl at a summer camp, and in April, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police filed additional charges based on the 6-year-old Eastover student whose family is suing Mata and CMS.

The lawsuit says the girl was assaulted during lock-down drills at Eastover’s after-school program. Mata would turn off the lights and tell children to hide and be quiet, and then used that opportunity to remove the girl’s clothes and sexually assault her, the suit claims.

Most of the decisions about PlaySpanish were made long before Clayton Wilcox became superintendent in 2017. But the suit does say that Wilcox had incorrectly assured CMS parents in 2018 that Mata had cleared a background check.

Wilcox was suspended by the board, then resigned, about a month ago. Neither the board nor Wilcox has offered any explanation. Carol Sawyer and Marshall, two board members who attended Wednesday’s news briefing, declined to discuss either the lawsuit or any possible connection to Wilcox’s departure.

But the board members and Winston all called attention to a safety study CMS launched almost a year ago.

The district created a safety task force that included "folks from all different parts of the organization: parents, teachers, coaches, front office personnel, custodians," Marshall said.

At the news briefing, Winston was pressed to cite any specific actions CMS was taking to reduce the risk for children being exposed to sexual abuse.

"What we do with our volunteers, we run nightly background checks," he said ."All of our volunteers are required, before they step inside of a schoolhouse, they’re required to undergo a background check. We also do fingerprints on our volunteers as well."

At the end of the news conference CMS spokeswoman Renee McCoy clarified that volunteers actually are not fingerprinted.

A report presented to the board in July says CMS will make sure outside vendors have been background-checked and parents understand how that system works. Video of that meeting, which is normally archived on Facebook, was missing this week. 

Marshall said the task force's plan includes better sharing of information and a clearer process for backgrounding people who use CMS facilities: "Having parents know that after-school providers, they have to do background checks on their folks, but letting parents know that this is not the same as a CMS employee."

The lawsuit asks for damages from CMS and Mata, but the family’s lawyers say they also hope it yields answers about what went wrong and what CMS is doing to protect children. Meanwhile, the girl who was assaulted will return to CMS next week, the lawyers say.