GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Months before a substitute teacher was charged with soliciting photos from an underage girl online, a middle school student reported concerns about his behavior.
Kent County prosecutors charged Brett Mathew Wardrop, 50, with four felonies in April, including child sexually abusive activity, using a computer to commit a crime, and accosting a child for immoral purposes.
The charges were connected to his alleged online contact with a decoy he thought was a 14-year-old girl.
Four months prior to the criminal charges, in December, a female middle school student in Rockford told her mom she felt “uncomfortable” after an incident involving Wardrop.
“This substitute struck a child on the buttocks with a ruler or yard stick,” wrote a Rockford Public Schools administrator in a December 3rd email to Edustaff, the agency that employed Wardrop.
“This would be cause for potential termination in Rockford, so I wanted to be sure to escalate it appropriately in your organization,” wrote Korie Wilson-Crawford, assistant superintendent of human resources at RPS.
Target 8 received a tip about the Rockford incident and used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain redacted emails and documents detailing the December complaint.
In her email to Edustaff, Wilson-Crawford wrote that RPS had removed the substitute from the district. She also attached a more detailed report of the incident.
“It was reported that a student was up at the board, behind the teacher’s desk, and while walking behind the teacher, asked ‘what is that wood stick for?’ (Wardrop), who had asked the student to sit down, grabbed the stick and then swung it at the student who was walking back to (her) seat. In swinging it toward the student, (Wardrop) made contact with the student’s buttocks,” the report concluded.
Wardrop told Rockford administrators it was an accident.
EDUSTAFF “COUNSELED” SUBSITUTE AFTER INCIDENT
“(The student) was drawing on the board and I asked (her) to sit back down… I was holding a yard stick while I asked (her) to sit down,” wrote Wardrop in an email to the middle school principal.
“I moved the stick a little too hard while making the request. I accidentally hit (her) not extremely hard but did make contact with (her). I apologized to (the student) and (she) laughed about it,” he wrote.
In response to questions from Target 8, Edustaff, the staffing organization where Wardrop worked, sent a two-sentence email.
“An initial and isolated incident within Rockford Public Schools had investigative findings which led to counseling Mr. Wardrop and his removal from working within the district.” wrote Jodi Center, executive director of human resources with Edustaff.
“In March 2022, when notified of an unrelated criminal investigation regarding the actions of Mr. Wardrop, he was immediately and permanently removed from employment with Edustaff,” Center wrote.
It appears the substitute staffing agency did not inform other districts of the December incident at the Rockford middle school.
According to administrators at Cedar Springs Public Schools and Lowell Area Schools, Wardrop was still subbing for them in mid-March when Edustaff learned of the criminal investigation into Wardrop’s online activities and terminated him.
“Mr. Wardrop’s last day in the district was March 18, 2022, which was the day allegations of concerning behavior were brought to our attention,” wrote Scott B. Smith, Cedar Springs superintendent, in an email to Target 8.
The superintendent of Lowell Area Schools, Dustin G. Cichocki, said Wardrop last subbed in his district on March 16th.
Wardrop also volunteered in Northview Public Schools.
“We have no indication that any of the criminal charges are related to his time as a volunteer for our district and we have not been contacted by any law enforcement agency regarding this or any other criminal charges,” wrote Dr. Scott Korpak in an email to Target 8.
“The safety and well-being of all our students is our highest priority and we take these charges very seriously,” wrote Korpak, noting that the district is “monitoring the situation closely.”
PREDATOR HUNTER TRACKED DOWN SUBSTITUTE
Lowell Area Schools, responding promptly to Target 8’s request under the Freedom of Information Act, released emails that detailed the district’s initial efforts to identify Wardrop.
On March 18th, an office assistant at a school in Lowell received a phone call from a woman in Indiana.
“Her name is Samantha Lawrence,” wrote the office assistant in an email to the building principal.
According to the assistant, Lawrence called at 9 a.m. that morning about a male substitute in the district that had been contacting minors and said that she had a photo of him.
The caller, Samantha Lawrence, runs a group called Predator Hunters Indiana, which places decoy profiles in chat rooms to catch people targeting minors. It was a decoy from Lawrence’s organization that first attracted Wardrop’s attention, according to court documents filed by the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.
Lawrence, an abuse survivor herself, told Target 8 Wardrop started talking to her group’s decoy in March and soon revealed he was a substitute teacher.
It took time to gather enough details to identify him, but Lawrence’s group knew Wardrop was somewhere in West Michigan based on his online profile.
That’s what prompted her to call various West Michigan school districts and send them a screengrab of Wardrop during an online chat.
Lowell’s superintendent used that picture to identify Wardrop.
“I was able to match a picture that was sent to our district with video footage of a sub who appears to be the same individual,” wrote Lowell superintendent Cichocki in a March 20 email to Edustaff.
“This subs name is Brett Wardrop. Our middle school secretarial staff recognized the individual in the picture that was sent from the organization in Indiana…. I also contacted our school resource officer, and he is working with the Michigan State Police to ensure the safety of students,” Cichocki wrote. “We are giving you this received information as the accusations appear to be against an Edustaff employee who works in multiple buildings and school districts across Kent County.”
Cichocki went on to inform Edustaff that Wardrop would be blocked from all Lowell Area School buildings.
At one point, Lawrence said Wardrop revealed the mascot of one of the districts in which he worked: a red hawk.
When the Indiana woman discovered Cedar Springs Public Schools had a red hawk mascot, she called the district.
DETECTIVE: WARDROP ADMITTED CONTACTING 10-30 UNDERAGE GIRLS
She also contacted the Kent County Sheriff’s Department.
On April 11, prosecutor Chris Becker charged Wardrop based on evidence collected by Lawrence’s group.
“The decoy posed as a 14-year-old female and communicated with (Wardrop) using an online application named Whisper,” wrote a detective in the affidavit of probable cause.
“The conversation turned to an inappropriate nature and (Wardrop) messaged back and forth with the decoy giving directions for and believing that the decoy was masturbating. Throughout (Wardrop) acknowledged the decoy was believed to be an underage female. He was also led to believe the decoy had come to orgasm. (Wardrop) gave directions for the decoy, still believing they were an underage female, not to wear underwear during her next school (sic).”
Detectives wrote Wardrop confessed when they confronted him outside his home.
“(Wardrop) stated he has communicated with female (sic) on his cell phone as he was working as a substitute teacher during class times. He estimated communicating with 10-30 underaged females and has received nude photographs from some of them but didn’t have a specific number,” the detective concluded in the affidavit.
After media reported the charges against Wardrop, an additional student contacted the sheriff’s department to report concerns as well.
The department released its report of the call to Target 8 but redacted all identifying information including the student’s school district and details of the event the student reported.
The student told investigators Wardrop was subbing in her class one day, and she could see him on the computer.
“(She) stated that she felt that (Wardrop) was being ‘creepy,'” wrote the investigator in the report.
The student told the sheriff’s department she “didn’t think much of it at the time” but after seeing news reports, she wanted to share her recollection.
ADVICE TO PARENTS: TRACK YOUR KIDS ONLINE
Samantha Lawrence implores parents to pay attention to what their kids are doing on their devices.
“Phones, iPads, video games. God, please check your video games,” Lawrence told Target 8.
“If they’re chatting on them games, check them. Take the headsets away. Listen to them on speakers so you can hear who they’re talking to.”