Tuesday, April 16, 2024

SBI investigation concludes, NHCS won’t face charges for failure to report decades of abuse

NHCS will not face charges for failure to report decades of sexual abuse by former teachers. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — North Carolina’s attorney general’s office announced Friday no charges will be brought against New Hanover County Schools for not keeping kids safe after investigations revealed decades of sexual abuse to students.

READ MORE: NHC school board signs resolution requesting release of SBI report

Attorney General Josh Stein pored through thousands of documents in the SBI’s investigation of allegations against the school system for failing to protect students and reporting claims of abuse from former employees. In a release, Stein said the statute of limitations prevents any felony or misdemeanor charges from being brought against NHCS.

There is a two-year statute of limitations for failure to report abuse or neglect and obstruction of justice. 

“While some of the evidence found in our investigation suggests that some New Hanover County Schools employees may have violated the law at the time, the statute of limitations passed before these allegations were reported to the district attorney and before we received the investigation for potential misdemeanor charges,” Stein said in the release. 

“Additionally, our review determined that felony charges don’t apply in this investigation,” he added.

Stein did acknowledge in the release the investigation concluded certain school employees did not report crimes of abuse to appropriate authorities.

“They failed at job one — keeping our children safe,” he said in the release.

Following the announcement of Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday’s retirement in July 2019, and the conviction of former teacher Michael Kelly, District Attorney Ben David and Sheriff Ed McMahon announced they asked the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations to look into allegations that administrators broke laws by neglecting to look into sexual abuse allegations and obstructing justice. 

“My twin goal was to hold people accountable and make our schools as safe as possible,” David said of the investigation Friday after Stein’s announcement. “There is more than one way to hold someone accountable for their actions, and anyone who is implicated by this investigation should no longer be entrusted with the care of our children.”

Based on previous Port City Daily reporting, the SBI was in possession of the file pertaining to investigating NHCS in July 2022. In May this year, the school board unanimously approved a resolution requesting the SBI release its report.

A spokesperson for the AG’s office told Port City Daily in May the investigation would likely take longer than normal since records they were reviewing dated back more than two decades.

NHCS board member Hugh McManus told Port City Daily Friday, while the situation itself involving abused students is “not what we’d like,” he was glad it was over.

“This board, we took a lot of hits from the media and the audience when we could not share what was going on,” McManus said. 

Two years ago the board hired a special attorney, Rick Sharpless — who passed away last week, according to board member Stephanie Walker — to defend the schools in light of the investigation. 

“We were doing everything humanly possible and thank God it worked out,” McManus said.

Walker echoed his thoughts, calling it a “dark cloud” over the district.

“I’m glad it’s over in a sense because it’s been looming over us for four years,” Walker said. “Some conclusion is better than nothing.”

Though she quickly added she feels for the students involved.

“All of this has been very hard on the survivors and still is difficult,” Walker said. “So it’s not over for them.”

Based on new legislation Stein drafted and Gov. Roy Cooper signed into law in November 2019, school systems could be held more accountable in the future.

While there is no statute of limitations to pursue criminal charges for sex crimes, there was a three-year statute to take civil action, which went into effect when a victim turned 18. 

The SAFE Child Act mandates every adult who interacts with a child has to report alleged abuse and assault. It also extends the statute of limitations in civil cases to age 28 for sex crimes against children and holds institutions that negligently allow abuse to happen responsible.

“An even longer statute of limitations for civil and criminal cases might have given my office and the victims some recourse to seek justice in this case,” Stein said in the release.

Decades of unreported sexual abuse

In separate cases, Stein was also tasked with investigating Robert Adam Burns and Peter Frank, former NHCS teachers accused of sexual abuse.

In April, Burns pleaded guilty to four counts of statutory offenses with a 13-, 14-, or 15-year-old and four counts of indecent liberties with a child. He was sentenced to 16 to 20 years in prison.

In June 2022, the Department of Justice’s Special Prosecutions Section charged former Roland Grise band teacher Peter Frank and convicted him at trial of 17 counts of sex crimes and indecent liberties for actions dating back to 1999. Frank received a minimum 50-year prison sentence.

According to a search warrant, Frank was counseled by the school system for having “inappropriate relationships” with students for most of his employment at New Hanover County Schools.

It was the news of former teacher Michael Kelly’s sentencing and guilty plea that led to the SBI looking into the school district’s role and responsibility of reporting abuse. Kelly was a chemistry teacher who taught at both Laney High School and Isaac Bear Early College High School.

He pleaded guilty June 25, 2019 to 59 felony sex crimes that occurred over 15 years, after being arrested in February 2018.

During Kelly’s criminal hearing, NHC assistant district attorney Connie Jordan said Kelly admitted he had been accused of exposing himself while teaching at Isaac Bear in 2006 and that the school had begun an investigation.

The school district denied this, according to past Port City Daily reporting. However, numerous accusations that administrators had knowledge of the abuse are documented in reports and the civil case against NHCS. 

DA David confirmed to PCD last year, there was an active investigation into Kelly’s claims, suggesting the schools failed to report the crimes, a Class 1 misdemeanor.

Just last month, the NHCS Board of Education settled with 14 plaintiffs, who filed a civil suit in 2019, accusing the district of negligence, failing to prevent abuse. 

School board attorneys tried to keep some students out of the suit. They claimed those abused by Kelly had filed after the statute of limitations expired. Judge Phyllis Gorham ruled in June 2022 the school’s failure to disclose Kelly had previously been investigated for sexual misconduct “effectively stalled the clock,” according to reporting from WECT, PCD’s media partner.

Gorham also ruled the school was indeed responsible for student safety despite board attorneys arguing Kelly’s actions were of those as an individual, outside his scope of employment.

NHCS is paying out $5.75 million to the victims. While the settlement resolves litigation against the board and top administrators, including former Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley and former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday, it doesn’t settle another civil suit victims have filed against Kelly — nor does it prohibit additional victims from coming forward and filing suit as well, according to a report from PCD’s media partner WHQR.

Rhine Law Firm and Lea/Schultz Law Firm represented the victims in the settlement case and detailed extensive allegations of covering up Kelly’s abuse. The same firms are representing Frank’s victims.

The settlement 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. 

PCD has asked NHCS multiple times what the changes and training will entail but has not received a response.

The SBI 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. 

New Hanover County Schools did not respond to a request for comment by press, nor did board members Stephanie Kraybill, Melissa Mason, Pete Wildeboer, or Josie Barnhart. Pat Broadford declined to comment.

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