NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The New Hanover County Board of Education is requesting the release of a state investigation into the district’s culpability in several student sexual abuse cases.
The North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation has been investigating whether NHCS administrators broke laws by failing to report sexual abuse or obstructing justice since 2019.
READ MORE: Victims of NHCS teacher’s sex abuse await ruling in potential dismissal from suit
ALSO: Dr. Rick Holliday announces retirement amid investigation into administration and staff
The New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David and Sheriff Ed McMahon requested the state agency look into the issue following Deputy Superintendent Rick Holliday’s retirement in July 2019 and teacher Michael Kelly’s guilty plea to 59 sex offenses involving 19 victims. Kelly’s crimes spanned more than 15 years while he was a teacher at Isaac Bear Early College and Laney High School, where Holliday was the principal.
In July 2022, the North Carolina Attorney General’s office reported it received the full file and would review it to “take any appropriate action.”
However, according to PCD reporting in June 2022, an AG spokesperson told the outlet: “We don’t consider investigations closed until there is a resolution. When considering possible actions, our office looks at the range of actions available under the law.”
Ten months later, NHCS board members agreed it’s time for the report to be released to the public.
“It’s time for the chips to fall where they may,” vice chair Pat Bradford said at a Tuesday special meeting.
Board member Hugh McManus said he’s seen many people claim the board is hiding the report or obstructing its public release in some way, which he said was not the case.
“It’s a dark cloud over this entire school system,” McManus said. “There’s not a soul on this board who is trying to hide this report.”
The resolution passed unanimously.
Board member Stephanie Walker then submitted a motion to instruct the district’s legal counsel to discuss the report with the attorney general’s office and the investigation’s status.
After publication, AG press secretary Nazneen Ahmed told Port City Daily the investigation is still ongoing, and criminal investigation records — including the SBI report — are exempted from disclosure under public records law.
“It’s important to note this is a complex investigation with years of records that date back to more than two decades ago, and so this may run longer than other investigations,” she said. “Our office is continuing our review and will take any appropriate action, as we have already done with our prosecution and conviction of Peter Franks and Robert Adam Burns. We are committed to delivering justice for the people of North Carolina.”
The SBI investigation involves several individuals accused or found guilty of sexual abuse. Aside from Kelly, the investigation is also supposed to have examined the case of Nicholas Oates, who was hired at NHCS despite past arrests for violence and sexual assaults against women.
In 2018, he was accused of molesting a Myrtle Grove Middle School student, but he died of liver failure while in custody before his trial. NHCS suspended Oates twice, and he silently resigned in 2017.
Separate from the investigation, Rhine Law Firm and Lea/Schultz Law Firm are representing victims in a lawsuit against the board of education, Holliday and former superintendent Tim Markley. The complaint details extensive allegations of covering up Kelly’s conduct. The firms are also involved in similar cases related to former Roland-Grise Middle School band teacher Peter Frank, who was sentenced to at least 50 years in prison for sex crimes.
The school district denied it investigated Kelly, who is serving 17 to 31 years. However, numerous accusations that administrators had knowledge of the abuse are documented in news reports and a civil case.
During Kelly’s hearing, New Hanover County Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan essentially condemned the school system for not acting when complaints were made about Kelly’s behavior.
“It is really concerning and so upsetting and disturbing that even the defendant admitted that he had been accused of exposing himself right when he started at Isaac Bear, that the school had mounted an investigation,” Jordan said at the time. “I could not find any indication that anything had been reported to law enforcement.”
After postponing it at last week’s meeting, the board also heard a safety presentation from Assistant Superintendent of Operations Eddie Anderson. The information, which included recent capital projects and physical safety implementations, follows the finding of two loaded guns at Ashley High School in the last few weeks.
Last week, the district held a press conference on the weapons, announcing law enforcement K-9s would be placed in most schools, “effective immediately,” to search for drugs and weapons.
Both administrators praised the New Hanover County Sheriff’s office for “stepping up” in the last few days to provide additional deputies at schools and pulling their K-9s from other areas to be added to the schools.
“We can’t say enough about the sheriff’s office and what they do,” Charles Silverstein, executive director of safety, said.
Silverstein met with Ashley staff on Monday to discuss ways to further strengthen campus safety. Installing metal detectors were part of the conversation. Anderson said he would like to see a district-wide implementation based on research, if that was the plan, rather than a “knee-jerk reaction” to an event at a specific school.
The district continues to construct security vestibules as well; 10 have been completed at Blair Elementary, College Park Elementary, Freeman Elementary, Porters Neck Elementary, Wrightsville Beach Elementary, Noble Middle, Trask Middle, Williston Middle, the J.C. Roe Center, and Lake Forest Academy.
Additional vestibules are set to be installed at the International School at Gregory, the Howe pre-K center, and the Dale K. Spencer administrative building this summer.
Next in line for 2024 are the four high schools, along with Roland Grise Middle School.
The board and staff also brought up current volunteer options for parents looking to help increase safety measures, including a watchdog group placed at each school.
The board also directed Superintendent Charles Foust to set up a roundtable discussion with Ashley’s principal and community members in the coming weeks to discuss safety needs.
Reach journalist Brenna Flanagan at email@example.com.
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