In April 2018, after Ricardo Mata had been charged with sexually assaulting a first-grader at Eastover Elementary School, then-schools Superintendent Clayton Wilcox assured families that the longtime Spanish-language volunteer had been thoroughly vetted.
“All CMS employees and volunteers must pass background checks,” Wilcox, who resigned in July, wrote in an email to Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools parents on April 27, 2018.
“Mr. Mata passed the background checks because he had no prior criminal charges.”
According to public documents and a new lawsuit filed by the parents of the Eastover child, Wilcox’s statement was not true.
Whether Wilcox knew it or not, when CMS backgrounded Mata in 2013, investigators found at least two felony arrests, a criminal conviction that had been overturned on appeal and two incidents in which Mata was suspected of molesting young students, one of them from CMS, documents show.
Even so, school leaders appear to have done nothing to limit Mata’s access to hundreds of the district’s youngest children, according to documents from the lawsuit shared with the Observer.
For more than a decade before the 2013 investigation, as Mata’s language program “PlaySpanish” spread to as many as 15 CMS schools, district officials appear to have never checked Mata’s record — a security measure that CMS tells families is mandatory for all volunteers, the lawsuit says.
Had CMS acted on what its investigation uncovered in 2013, the Eastover child would not have been subjected to two years of sexual assaults from which she and her family still struggle, her father says.
“I’m shocked. I’m dismayed. I’m incredibly furious,” the father told the Observer this week. “The red flags were out there, and nobody did anything.”
CMS refused to comment Tuesday on a pending legal matter. Mata’s court-appointed attorney, Mecklenburg assistant public defender Peter Nicholson, could not be reached for comment.
The parents say in the lawsuit that their daughter, who participated in PlaySpanish in kindergarten and first grade, was repeatedly molested on school grounds. Some of those assaults, they say, took place during “Lock-Downs,” Mata’s purported student-safety training sessions in which the classroom lights were turned off, and his after-school students were told to scatter, hide and stay quiet.
Mata, according to emails, notified CMS of those drills. Now, the Eastover parents wonder why an after-school language teacher offering security training did not raise alarms among school officials.
According to the complaint, district officials and the school board received “credible information” in 2013 that Mata had molested a Matthews Elementary student enrolled in PlaySpanish.
The resulting probe by CMS police also uncovered a 2009 Charlotte-Mecklenburg police investigation into whether Mata had been responsible for the “forcible fondling” of a 6-year-old female student at the British International School in Ballantyne, an allegation that led to Mata being banned from that campus, the lawsuit says.
No criminal charges were filed in either of those cases.
The 2013 CMS investigation also found that Mata had a 1999 conviction in Mecklenburg County for assault on a female and communicating threats. The conviction was erased after Mata appealed, the lawsuit says.
Six years earlier, Mata had been arrested in Greensboro and extradited to Georgia on a “fugitive from justice” warrant for an unspecified felony charge, the lawsuit says. CMS investigators sought information on the charges from Georgia officials, the lawsuit says, but failed to hear back. The Observer found the extradition arrest listed on Mata’s criminal record, but it did not include details on the nature of the Georgia offense.
“Several children and parents have expressed concerns over (Mata’s) affectionate touching and comments,” CMS police Detective Jim Smallridge wrote in an Oct. 30, 2013, email to his counterparts in Georgia, according to a copy of the inquiry obtained by the Observer.
Two days later, according to the lawsuit, CMS officials met with Mata to discuss the allegations against him.
Two days after that, Mata emailed the district to say that the reports of his misconduct were not true, and that he was saddened by the need “to limit the contact and close interaction with our students,” as “human warmth and love — expressed in reasonable, acceptable ways — is what we bring to our classrooms.”
In his email, which was sent to then-Associate Superintendent Guy Chamberlain and shared with the Observer this week, Mata thanked the CMS official for his support and denied that he had molested anyone.
“I don’t show any students withdrawing from or stopping their attendance to my class,” he wrote. “Don’t you find that strange? Who, in his or her right mind, would continue to expose a child to a potential child molester?”
Mata continued to have access to dozens of students taking part in his program for another five years. He was banned after his 2018 arrest, when he was charged with sexually assaulting the Eastover Elementary student and another PlaySpanish participant from a Charlotte-area church summer camp.
“I don’t think any parent would say this guy passed a background check,” said Charlotte attorney Alex Heroy, who filed the lawsuit Tuesday for the family of the Eastover student.
“CMS failed to act in the face of credible allegations against Mr. Mata, ignored them for years, all to the danger of the kids, our kids.”
Mata, 54, remains in the Mecklenburg County jail. He is scheduled to stand trial in January on multiple counts of felony indecent liberties with a child and statutory sex offense on a child by an adult. He is also an undocumented immigrant who faces deportation once his criminal case is resolved, immigration officials said at the time of his arrest.
Mata first brought PlaySpanish to CMS in the late 1990s, when the Latino migration to the city was booming. On its former website, the program touted that it had served more than 15,000 Charlotte-area students during its two-plus decades of operation.
In his April 2018 letter to parents, Wilcox said Mata was banned from the schools as soon as he was charged.
“There are no words to adequately describe how traumatizing this incident has been for the victims, families and school communities affected by Mr. Mata’s criminal acts,” Wilcox wrote. “This betrayal is painful and alarming to families, to schools, and to the district.”
Wilcox could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Based on CMS documents he has accumulated under the public records law, Heroy, the parents’ attorney, says CMS did some betraying of its own.
“They did a halfway job of due diligence on him. Once they get this information, they don’t do anything with it ... They talked to him, but they then decide to accept his side of the story,” Heroy said. “And they didn’t tell anybody. Not principals. Not teachers. Not parents.”
In July, and without explanation from the board or himself, Wilcox was suspended and then resigned. His departure followed some public discord with board members, including one controversy over how Wilcox handled background checks for school personnel.
In June, WBTV, the Observer’s news partner, reported that CMS employees hired in the past year were not fingerprinted as part of their background checks, a violation of the school board’s policy.
CMS began using a new company to conduct background checks in June 2018. Fingerprinting was not part of the company’s screening process. Wilcox later told WBTV that it was his decision to end fingerprinting.
“All of these decisions ultimately rest with me as the superintendent,” Wilcox told the station.
In his email to CMS families after Mata’s arrest, Wilcox said the school district would review and improve all procedures aimed at keeping students safe, including how it backgrounded volunteers.
“Clearly, we must act,” he wrote to parents. “CMS teachers, staff and employees take your student’s safety seriously and know that you entrust your most precious people with us every day.”
The current volunteer-registration form advises candidates that they will undergo a background check by police and asks if they’ve been “arrested, convicted of, pleaded no contested to, or received a prayer for judgment for a misdemeanor or felony?”
It’s unclear whether Wilcox, who took over the district in July 2017, was aware of CMS’s earlier investigation of Mata when he told parents the volunteer had passed his background check. Heroy says Wilcox’s name is not included in the hundreds of documents the attorney says he has amassed in connection with his case.
The findings of the 2013 probe into Mata’s background did resurface in 2017 CMS emails as individual schools were debating whether to approve PlaySpanish for the coming academic year.
As opening day drew near and the number of participating schools dwindled, Mata lashed out at CMS on Facebook, accusing unnamed “bigots and bureaucrats” of trying to undermine his program.
“I am having trouble trusting him with my kids,” one parent wrote to her child’s elementary school’s assistant principal that October, according to a copy of the message shared with the Observer.
“I would feel the same way,” the assistant principal replied.
According to the email exchange, the assistant principal had approved PlaySpanish for his students the day before.
A month before his arrest, Mata claimed that he and his staff were being harassed by Charlotte-Mecklenburg police and immigration officials following the election of President Donald Trump and might have to close.
CMPD and immigration officials said Mata’s allegations were not true.
The parents of the Eastover student enrolled the child in PlaySpanish when she was a 6-year-old kindergartner and again when she entered first grade.
The father said he had met Mata personally and had been impressed.
But during his daughter’s second year in the program, he said, he and his wife began noticing troubling changes in the girl’s behavior.
“She was suddenly terrified of going back to the class,” the father said. “She didn’t understand what was happening to her.”
Eventually, according to her father, the girl told her mother what had taken place. He said he and his wife since have reached out to the family of the other girl who Mata also is accused of molesting.
Their lawsuit names CMS, the board of education, Mata and PlaySpanish as defendants.
It accuses Mata of physical and sexual assault and battery, and says school leaders are guilty of intentional and reckless infliction of emotional distress and gross negligence, among other claims. The complaint also seeks punitive damages and a jury trial.
The father said he and his wife did not want to come forward with their daughter’s ordeal. But they changed their minds based on what they’ve learned about CMS’s dealings with the girl’s alleged attacker.
“Our agenda, my agenda is to keep this from happening again, to other families,” the father said. “This was widespread negligence. People knew about it. It has to change.”
Observer staff writer Fred Clasen-Kelly contributed.