Polk County Public Schools is proposing a major change in its hiring practices after a special education teacher and basketball coach was hired at Haines City High School more than a year after he was found not guilty of sending a sexually explicit image to and kissing a student at Poinciana High School.

Investigators said they believe that teacher, Wayne McKenzie Ricks II, then sexually battered a 16-year-old student at HCHS and now awaits trial on those charges.

At a work session today, the School Board, Superintendent Frederick Heid, and Senior Director of Government Affairs Wendy Dodge are scheduled to discuss the changes, which include:

  • The superintendent “reviewing each affidavit of separation from previous employers pursuant to FS 1012.31,” which deals with personnel files, including discipline and investigations.
  • Disqualifying a candidate “from employment in any position that requires direct contact with students if the candidate is ineligible for such employment under F.S. 1012.315, or if the candidate has been terminated or resigned in lieu of termination for sexual misconduct with a student.”
  • Making people “ineligible for educator certification or employment in any position that requires direct contact with students if the person is on the disqualification list maintained by the department … is registered as a sex offender … or has been convicted or found guilty of, has had adjudication withheld for, or has pled guilty or nolo contendere to any of the felony offenses listed in F.S. 1012.315.

PCPS spokesman Kyle Kennedy said its human resources team reviews all job applicants.

“Applications for employment come through Human Resource Services for vetting,” Kennedy said. “A review of previous work history is conducted by personnel investigators to determine if an applicant’s work history would prevent them from being employed.”

He said that someone convicted or found guilty of, has had adjudication withheld for, or has pleaded guilty or nolo contendere to any of the felony offenses listed in F.S. 1012.315 would not be hired at an off-campus site, like bus maintenance or the supply warehouse, even if they would not have contact with children.

“The same disqualifying criteria is utilized for all potential PCPS employees,” Kennedy said.

The changes come 18 months after Ricks’ arrest and following media reports, including a story in The Ledger, that Ricks was rehired in Florida as a teacher because the Florida Department of Education failed to flag his personnel file after his 2018 arrest in Poinciana. In addition, Polk County Public Schools appears to have conducted a flawed background check when HCHS hired him in 2020.

In January 2018, Ricks, now 30, was charged with battery on a minor for touching and kissing a 17-year-old Poinciana High student and sending her a picture of his penis via Snapchat. That phone app deletes messages after a short period of time and the girl did not take a screenshot of his message. He was found not guilty of those charges in May 2019.

From there, he went to work in August 2019 at a Winter Haven charter school and passed a PCPS criminal background check. In August 2020, he got a job at Haines City High. An investigative report with the state shows HCHS principal called a friend he knew at Poinciana High School to ask about Ricks instead of calling Osceola County Public Schools human resources department. The friend knew nothing about Ricks’ arrest. However, a Google search would have turned up the Poinciana arrest in news reports.

In January 2021, Ricks was arrested and charged with sexual battery of the 16-year-old HCHS student. Investigators say he groomed the girl by gaining her trust, including giving her gifts, text messaging her repeatedly, taking her on special outings, and telling her he loved her. Investigators say he then began having sex with her in his van and in a closet in his classroom, where she often visited after he sent notes to her teachers, requesting her presence. His ex-wife provided police with videos of Ricks with the girl at Universal Studios.

Despite the 2018 criminal case against Ricks, Florida Department of Education officials did not place sanctions on his teaching certificate nor put an administrative notice in his file until two weeks after his second arrest in 2021 on the Polk County charges. At that time, FDOE officials “found probable cause” that Ricks’ “conduct was grossly immoral” in the Osceola County case. OCPS officials had already come to that conclusion after they conducted an investigation, placing their findings in his personnel file. Ricks resigned before being placed on administrative leave or fired in both Osceola and Polk counties. A discipline hearing still has not been conducted on the 2018 case, although DOE officials said in May that one would be scheduled for later this summer.

A red flag that PCPS officials missed came from Ricks himself – on his PCPS application, he indicated that he had been “disciplined, the subject of an investigation, terminated, or … non-reappointed for performance reasons from a prior employer …”

“Subject of an investigation I was cleared from,” Ricks wrote. Apparently, no one followed up on it.

Because of his “not guilty” verdict, PCPS officials said he would have cleared a criminal background check. The Osceola County Public Schools investigation, however, remains in his personnel file with that district for 25 years, OCPS officials said.

Ricks remains behind bars at the Polk County Jail as he awaits trial. His next court appearance is scheduled for Aug. 23 for a pre-trial conference.

Florida Department of Education officials did not reply to a request for comment on whether they also are making any policy changes.

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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