Tuesday, March 5, 2024

District, school board silent on New Kelly lawsuit

The three plaintiffs, John Does 15 through 17, have filed a lawsuit against nHC based on eight different causes of action. (Port City Daily/File)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Litigation over the abuse of former New Hanover County Schools teacher Michael Kelly is not over, as made apparent by the recent filing of a new civil lawsuit on behalf of three more of Kelly’s former students. 

READ MORE: 3 more victims file suit against NHC school board over Kelly abuse

ALSO: Judge awards $140M damages to victims in Michael Kelly case

Filed by Rhine and Lea/Schultz law firms on behalf of John Does 15 through 17 on Dec. 7, the complaint reveals more details on the upcoming legal proceedings against Kelly, the New Hanover County school board and several former NHCS employees. 

Kelly was employed as a chemistry teacher at Laney High School and Isaac Bear Early College. From 2003 to his arrest in 2018, he committed a number of predatory acts with multiple students. Accusations include sexually explicit conversations with students, exposing them to pornography, possessing and sharing child pornography, performing sex acts on children and directing them to perform sex acts on him. 

Attorneys Martin Ramey and Mary Charles Amerson argue the district leaders should have reasonably known of Kelly’s abuse and acted in negligence by failing to protect students from the teacher, invading their privacy, and violating the U.S. Constitution by denying the students their right to an education. 

The lawsuit also accuses Kelly of assault and battery, contributing to physical, mental and financial hardships for the former students.

According to the lawsuit, the John Does were harassed by Kelly at Isaac Bear Early College after the principal conducted interviews with several parents and many other former students about Kelly’s inappropriate conduct in 2010. 

Thus, the attorneys argue, Kelly would never have abused the John Does if the school board had taken measures to address and stop Kelly’s behavior.

Port City Daily requested comments from the district and each school board member. District spokesperson Salvatore Cardella responded: “We have nothing to add at this time.” 

Board members Hugh McManus and Stephanie Kraybill also declined to comment; the others did not respond by press, except for board member Stephanie Walker, who said the board has not been briefed on the matter. 

“My heart has always been with the victims,” Walker said. “I know that might not mean much, but I feel it’s important to say.”

This civil case is the second to emerge from the Kelly prosecution implicating the board for wrongdoing. The first, filed in 2019 after Kelly was found guilty of 59 sex crimes, was filed on behalf John Does 1 through 14. 

It never reached trial; after years of trying to dismiss the suit, the board settled in June, paying $5.75 million to the victims. In November, a separate case found Kelly liable for the distress his abuse caused the victims, ordering him to pay $140 million

In his criminal case, Kelly was sentenced to 31 years and resides in the Warren County prison.

In the prior civil case against Kelly, almost all of the victims reported being diagnosed with PTSD, depression, anxiety, suffering from panic attacks, having problems with alcohol, self-harm, suicide ideation, and suicide attempts.

John Does 15, 16 and 17 were similarly affected, according to the new lawsuit. 

Kelly met the three plaintiffs in their freshman year at Isaac Bear. Kelly allegedly pushed the boys to engage in sex acts, showed them pornography, some involving Kelly, and solicited nude photos from the boys, exposed himself to them, groped them, all occurring on a daily basis. 

As with other victims, Kelly also posed as a porn recruiter to garner videos of the boys performing sex acts. 

Text from the lawsuit filed against former NHCS teacher Michael Kelly on Dec. 7 showing a SnapChat message from Kelly to a student. (Rhine Law Firm, Lea/Schultz Law Firm)

According to reports from the plaintiffs, Kelly told them he would ejaculate onto student desks, specifically the ones that irritated or angered him during class. 

In each case, the lawsuit notes Kelly desensitized the boys to sex, leading them to daily use of porn, masturbation and a desire to have sex.

The lawsuit notes the victims suffer from severe anxiety and depression, as well as other physical and psychological injuries, as a result of Kelly’s actions. The lawsuit alleges Kelly is liable for those damages. 

It also claims the school board is liable for failing to provide proper oversight of Kelly and take action on the complaints lobbied against him, plus its inability to prevent, in any way, further abuse by the teacher. 

The lawsuit describes several instances where reports of Kelly’s misconduct were made to the school; they were dismissed without reports to central office staff nor further investigations. 

A 1993 incident is used as an example. A Laney student complained to the vice principal that Kelly was discussing having sex with his wife during class; there’s no evidence of action taken. 

During the 2005-2006 school year, a mother found a permission slip for a fake field trip in her son’s bag. The field trip, with hotel accommodations, was planned by Kelly for him and her son only. There’s no evidence of action taken. 

The lawsuit describes four other complaints filed that went nowhere.

The district also failed to enact and enforce policies to outline expectations of NHCS staff, nor did it train them on Title IX issues or how to spot grooming or abuse, according to the suit. The attorneys take particular aim at Rick Holliday, former deputy superintendent and Title IX coordinator; he retired in 2018, amid Kelly’s criminal investigation. The lawsuit claims Holliday held no qualifications for Title IX at the time. 

The lawsuit details the U.S. Department of Education issued revised sexual harassment guidance in 2001 to each superintendant across the country requiring a designated Title IX officer. NHCS did not identify one until 2004, when Holliday was appointed. 

The lawsuit states Holliday did not initiate any Title IX complaints between 2004 and 2012, despite the number of complaints and dismissals experienced in the district. He also failed to enact a Title IX policy nor train NHCS employees on the law. 

From 2012 to 2018, Holliday issued only four Title IX complaints, despite evidence of misconduct in 2002, 2003, 2004, 2010 , 2011, 2012, 2015, 2017, 2018, 2019 , 2020 and 2021, according to the lawsuit. 

There were at least 13 NHCS employees that resigned or were terminated for sexual assault incidents, plus seven additional individuals complained about, according to the lawsuit. 

In 2009, Williston Middle School teacher Jessica Wishnask was arrested for indecent liberties with a minor; the lawsuit states a school board member at the time spoke out, saying the district was not doing enough to prevent instances like Wishnask’s from occurring. A response from another board member was: “no matter what we do, the board will be viewed as wrong by someone.” 

In 2012, Roland-Grise Middle School teacher April Schaefer was also arrested for indecent liberties. When the StarNews contacted the district per coverage of the arrest,  a board member said it was “tabloid journalism” and “I wish they would tackle real issues.” 

In his 2019 interview with law enforcement, Kelly admitted to being investigated by NHCS in 2006 and 2010. He was subsequently cleared and the investigations were never reported to law enforcement, the lawsuit states. 

The lawsuit also notes NHCS failed to protect children by not making parents or students aware of Kelly’s abuse. Instead, families trusted the school to protect their students, as Kelly was authorized to hold authority over the pupils and was lauded for his work, namely with a Teacher of the Year award in 2016. Kelly was allowed to interact with students after hours, obtain phone numbers, and continue to teach, even after multiple people had come forward about his behavior.

“This school district has shown a deliberate indifference to the prevention of sexual assault by teachers and employees on students,” the lawsuit claims. 

No trial date has been set for the case.

[Correction: The original version of this article stated John Does 15 through 17 were requesting $200,000 in damages; attorney Martin Ramey told PCD the victims will be seeking more. The amount listed in each of the eight counts is purely to invoke the jurisdiction of the Superior Court versus the lower District Court. PCD regrets the error.]

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