NEW HANOVER COUNTY — After years of litigation, the New Hanover County Board of Education will settle with the plaintiffs in a civil case regarding sexual abuse committed by former teacher and convicted felon Michael Kelly.
NHCS announced the decision via press release on Friday.
The district will pay out $5.75 million to the 14 men who have stated Kelly abused them while they were his students. Kelly was a chemistry teacher who taught at both Laney High School and Isaac Bear Early College High School.
He was arrested on February 6, 2018, by a joint task force involving members of the State Bureau of Investigation, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Kelly eventually pleaded guilty to 59 felony sex crimes on June 25, 2019.
The lawsuit, filed by Rhine and Lea/Schultz law firms in 2019, alleged NHCS and the board of education is culpable in failing to prevent Kelly’s actions for more than ten years.
“Today’s agreement is an opportunity to move forward from a difficult period in this district’s history,” Rhine Law Firm’s Martin Ramey said in a press release. “It is now time to look ahead and to work both as a district and as a community to ensure this doesn’t happen again in New Hanover County Schools.”
The settlement agreement will be completely covered by NHCS’ insurance.
“[A]nd it will not have an impact on our budget nor on the incredible work that happens in our schools on a daily basis,” board chair Pete Wildeboer said in the release.
The agreement also calls for the school to make several “programmatic commitments,” including expanded training for students, staff, and administrators on sexual abuse and recognizing and reporting such abuse. There will be a public report of its efforts to improve the school’s policies and practices regarding Title IX compliance and sexual abuse prevention.
“The Board has been active over the last three years to improve policies, expand our Title IX department, provide student and staff training, and build out our reporting tools and procedures,” Wildeboer said in the release. “These additional commitments reflect our recognition that there is more work to do.”
The release does not include an apology or admission of wrongdoing by the board. It expresses a “sincere hope that the resolution of this case will support the Plaintiffs’ path toward healing.”
It also indicates the board has committed to continued efforts to make the New Hanover County Schools a model for proactive prevention efforts, strong policies and procedures for student safety, and a culture of vigilance.
“Nothing that stays hidden ever heals,” added Jim Lea of the Lea/Schultz firm. The quote was borrowed and surfaced early in the case in a video prepared by the plaintiff’s counsel.
“The impact of sexual abuse is life-altering,” Lea continued. “We hope this settlement will begin to bring much-needed peace and healing to these men and their families.”
The decision comes three days after parents and community activists rallied on the steps of NHCS Board of Education Center to demand a settlement from the board.
A mother of one the 14 plaintiffs also spoke; she said her son was a warrior for everything he’s been through.
“Structural violence, violence caused by social structures and institutions that harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs, it’s a silent and lethal form of violence, a form of violence that has haunted my family,” she said.
“[A settlement] will allow the financial means for each of the 14 victims to receive the mental health support they need, to begin to put their lives back together,” mother and advocate Angie Kahney said Tuesday. “Let me be clear, no one will get rich off of this case. This is bare minimum and what is absolutely deserved for the pain and suffering that these young guys have endured for years.”
The board and plaintiffs are finalizing the formal written agreement, and the lawsuit will be dismissed upon execution of the final document.
Catch up on previous PCD reporting on the case:
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