OAKLAND — Just last September, Sylvester Jack Lawson was one of 70-some Oakland school district employees who received a service award, honored "for exemplifying the highest commitment to the success of our students and our district."
Today, the 52-year-old Oakland High School custodian stands accused of stealing district property, and even taking a student's lost wallet. Lawson was formally charged Tuesday, and appears in court today.
Lawson is one of the three janitors recently arrested on suspicion of stealing from the Oakland school district, and one of two to be charged with felonies as of Tuesday afternoon.
Kenneth Wayne Hill, a 43-year-old convicted felon, worked at Webster Academy, a school in East Oakland that lost 22 new computers in a Sept. 3 burglary.
Hill was on probation and visibly intoxicated when he was taken into police custody Friday in connection with the theft investigation, according to police. He was arraigned Tuesday on charges of receiving stolen property, as well as a probation violation, and remains in custody without bail. He was convicted in 2005 of smuggling drugs into Dublin's Santa Rita Jail, according to court records.
State law forbids school districts from hiring people who have been convicted of violent crimes, child sexual abuse and felony drug offenses.
Hill was hired in February 2005, about six months before his felony conviction. District spokesman Troy Flint said the human resources department does not have Hill's arrest report on file, and that it wasn't clear why it was missing. Since that time, Flint said, the school district has created a log for tracking such information about its employees.
Still, Flint said, employees hired before 1997 — when stringent employee background check requirements went into effect — have most likely not been fingerprinted.
Oakland Unified's ongoing theft investigation, conducted by district and city police, was prompted by two major burglaries last week — one Sept. 2 at the central office headquarters, and the other Sept. 3 at Webster Academy.
On the night of Sept. 2, thieves climbed onto the roof of the Oakland school district's administrative offices, cut through the protective wire outside the windows and entered the human resources department without triggering the alarm, district officials reported. They stole 10 computers that contained the Social Security numbers and personal information of at least 100 employees.
A third custodian who was arrested during the investigation had not been charged by the District Attorney's Office Tuesday; the D.A.'s office apparently hadn't received the case.
Investigators said Monday night that they had yet to uncover evidence that directly linked the three suspects to the headquarters burglary. But, according to school district spokesman Troy Flint, police believe "it might be part of a larger pattern of theft."