Four years after teachers’ sex scandal exposed, no resolution in school administrators’ criminal investigation

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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) – A criminal investigation has dragged on for years following one of the biggest scandals in New Hanover County history.

Victims and the community at large are still waiting to hear whether school administrators will be held criminally responsible following accusations that they failed to report the alleged sexual abuse of their students. What started with the arrest of a teacher for sex crimes against a student turned into the arrest of several other teachers for similar crimes. This led to a growing chorus of people saying the abuse had been going on for years and administrators knew about it, but failed to stop it.

High school science teacher Michael Kelly was arrested in February 2018, after a student’s parents found disturbing images on their son’s phone and realized he was exchanging nude photos with Kelly. Over the next few months, more than a dozen other students and alumni came forward to say they had also been Kelly’s victims. The allegations ranged from Kelly showing them porn in class to Kelly sexually assaulting them inside and outside of school.

New Hanover County Schools quickly fired Kelly and assured the public that they had never received a single complaint about Kelly, who was a former teacher of the year. But parents and alumni came to WECT with a very different story, saying they had gone to administrators decades earlier to complain that he was sexually inappropriate with students. One parent even kept a copy of his complaint against Kelly. The schools claimed to have no record of his complaint, but the original was found later in the central office upon discovering a lawsuit brought by victims of sexual abuse.

On June 25, 2019, Kelly pleaded guilty to dozens of sex crimes against her students. During his hearing, prosecutors said in open court that Kelly admitted he had previously been investigated for complaints of sexual misconduct by school administrators and was cleared. of any wrongdoing. Less than a week later, New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David asked the North Carolina Attorney General to intervene to determine whether administrators at the New Hanover County school were at the aware of the abuse and did not report it.

Almost immediately, Assistant Superintendent Rick Holliday, who had previously served as Kelly’s direct supervisor, announced his retirement. Several months later, Superintendent Tim Markley and Human Resources Director John Whelmers also resigned. All had come under intense scrutiny for failing to end the sexual abuse of students that had been going on for years.

In the months following Kelly’s arrest, the arrests of teachers like Nicholas Oates and Peter Frank for alleged sex crimes against their students increased public outcry.

Despite intense public interest, years have passed without resolution of the criminal investigation into the administrators’ alleged inaction after being made aware of concerning behavior between teachers and students. Under North Carolina law, public employees are required to report suspected crimes against children to law enforcement. The pandemic was initially blamed for the slow pace of investigation, but that explanation is no longer sufficient for some people awaiting answers.

The State Bureau of Investigation and the North Carolina Attorney General’s Office told WECT News the investigation is ongoing.

“Our office is reviewing SBI documents as they come in. As you may have seen in the public documents filed in the civil case, waiting to get the depositions and have them compiled has also been a long necessity. Our office will take the time necessary to carry out a thorough examination. We also made progress in State v. Peter Frank, who is to be tried on 5/9/22. We hope the case will be closed as soon as possible,” Nazneen Ahmed, spokesperson for North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein, told WECT when asked for an update on the case.

District Attorney Ben David told WECT he was ethically prohibited from commenting on an ongoing case, but he urged state officials to expedite the investigation so the public can find out if the administrators of the school are criminally negligent for their role in the sex scandal. While he can’t comment, he lobbied for the release of his correspondence, requested by WECT as part of a public records request, to state agencies in the matter.

The correspondence, which has just been given to WECT by the Courts Administrative Office, shows that a year after the start of the investigation, David began to advocate for a conclusion of the investigation.

“The press is again asking my office to comment … on why we have not acted [in the Nicholas Oates case], when in truth we were never informed by the SRO of the allegations. I understand our ethical obligations regarding silence [while] an investigation is ongoing… Do you have any idea when we might get a conclusion on the investigation? David wrote to North Carolina Department of Justice Attorney Leslie Cooley-Dismukes on August 7, 2020.

With the investigation unsuccessful, some members of the community personally attacked David in widely circulated emails, publicly demanding that he be removed from his post for dereliction of duty.

On October 22, 2020, after critics again publicly accused him of misconduct for failing to carry out his child protection duties, David reached out to Cooley-Dismukes a second time for help. “Any word on when this investigation can be concluded so we can finally set the record straight?” he asked in an email.

On February 1, 2021, David wrote Cooley-Dismukes for at least the third time, hoping for a conclusion to the investigation.

“I look forward to responding to the unsubstantiated allegations against members of my office, but cannot while this investigation is ongoing,” David wrote.

“The SBI has yet to conclude its investigation. As you know, and I have tried to explain to [David critic Dante Murphy], I cannot assess the situation until I have the full report from the SBI. I met them last week and they are progressing. The case involves the review of thousands of pages of school board records and I have only one agent, who is working diligently. Hopefully we can wrap this up soon. I know you wish you could defend yourself and your office appropriately. I’ll keep you posted as we progress,” Cooley-Dismukes replied.

A year after this email exchange, the public is still waiting for answers. Nicholas Oates died in prison awaiting trial, and his accusers never had their day in court. It is hoped that information will come to light during Peter Frank’s trial scheduled for May.

Meanwhile, the civil lawsuit against the New Hanover County School Board is ongoing and is expected to go to trial in September. It was filed by more than a dozen former students who say they were abused by Mike Kelly and that school administrators failed to protect them even after being made aware of Kelly’s disturbing behavior .

The plaintiffs in this case have several hurdles to overcome. The schools’ insurance company says it is not liable for most of the claims in the lawsuit, detailing its position in court documents filed last week. The motions in this case are scheduled to be heard on March 8.

A state appeals court panel also complicated matters when they recently ruled that a law extending the statute of limitations for victims of sex crimes in North Carolina is unconstitutional. The challenged law had given several of the plaintiffs in the case, who are now in their 20s and 30s, the opportunity to join the lawsuit. Lawyers say the recent decision will likely be reviewed by the state Supreme Court.

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