Monday, March 4, 2024

Questions for the New Hanover County Board of Education: Closed session vote, investigation, private settlements?

After several contentious -- and confusing -- weeks for the newly sworn-in Board of Education, questions have arisen about recent activities and the board's position on calls for an internal investigation.

From top left: Bill Rivenbark, Jeannette Nichols, Stefanie Adams, and Lisa Estep. From bottom left: Nelson Beaulieu, Judy Justice, and David Wortman. (Port City Daily photo / Courtesy New Hanover Board of Education)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — It’s been a fraught several weeks for the New Hanover County Board of Elections, leaving residents with questions about a community group’s request for an investigation into the school’s policies and administration.

Port City Daily addressed several of those questions, listed below, to all board members, as well as several specific questions for individual board members and the school’s attorney.

(1)  Was there a vote taken in closed session on the January 8 meeting, in which the board voted to send a letter to the citizen’s group (Mr. Clyde Edgerton, Mr. Dante Murphy, et. al.) telling them the board would not conduct an internal investigation?

(2)  The board has stated that the Board if the ‘last line of defense,’ and that the FBI, SBI, and U.S. Department of Education, Office of Civil Rights (OCR) should be allowed to conduct their respective investigations, do you agree with that?

(3)  What about those incidents which, because they have missed the OCR statute of limitations were not filed? Or incidents that were never investigated by law enforcement?

(4)  Are you aware of any settlement negotiations currently going on between NHCS and students and their families over mishandled incidents, including but not limited to Title IX violations? 

The majority of board members responded, including Chairwoman Lisa Estep, Vice Chairman David Wortman, and board members Jeannette Nichols, Judy Justice, and Nelson Beaulieu. Their answers are below, followed by answers specific to individual board members.

Board members Bill Rivenbark and Stefanie Adams did not respond by press time. If and when they do, their responses will be added in an updated article.

Closed session vote?

There’s been a good deal of discussion about a closed session of the board which occurred on January 8. The board discussed a request by a community group – including Pender County NAACP President Dante Murphy and UNCW Professor Clyde Edgerton – to investigate mishandling of Title IX cases (according to OCR records, there are currently eight open Title IX investigations into NHCS, including those filed in the Sarah Johnson case). It also includes the disproportionately white Spanish-immersion program at Forest Hills Elementary, a case documented by Star News in 2016.

While all board members agree the discussion happened, there is little consensus on what action the board took. Wortman forwarded the question to New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) attorney, Wayne Bullard, for a fuller answer. Bullard has not yet responded.

According to Nichols and Estep, no vote was taken.

Estep elaborated, “In December, the new Board was briefed on all of the cases mentioned in Reverend Murphy’s letter to the Board. After that briefing, there was no formal vote taken. The minutes for our closed session, which all Board members had a chance to review via email and in person, reflect this.”

When it comes to the issue of providing Reverend Murphy an actual written response, there was a general consensus given as to the format of the letter to be sent, with one Board member voicing opposition. Those minutes, which were again sent to all Board members for review and were formally approved in our meeting last night, do reflect that.”

According to Beaulieu and Justice, there was a vote.

Beaulieu added that the vote emphatically not on whether or not the board should investigate, but only on whether or not the board should send a formal letter in response to Murphy’s claims.

Justice noted, “I voted against the language and the letter because I stated that I thought there should be an investigation and that I did not agree with the content of the letter. I later asked [NHCS attorney Wayne Bullard] if I could share this information with a reporter who requested it and he said yes as long as it had nothing to do with personnel. I also shared this information with the other board members throughout the conversations. All were aware of the vote.”

Justice also added she was “very confused” as to why her vote was not reflected properly in the minutes, stating that Bullard had agreed with her and that the board would be correcting the minutes in the upcoming meeting.

Last line of defense?

The question remains whether or not the board can legally investigate. There seems to be confusion, for example, on whether or not the board can utilize subpoenas or other investigatory methods. There is also the question of whether or not it is the board’s role to do so.

Estep clarified her statement on behalf of the board:

“I believe my statement was that our Board was the last line of defense for appeal, for both employees and students. If an employee has been suspended, recommended for non-renewal, termination, or has a grievance, or if a student has been long term suspended, those cases are appealable to the Board (expulsions are automatically appealed), and so it is essential that we remain neutral,” Estep said. “What this means is we are at the end of a long chain, with many sets of eyes on these cases, and not all cases appear before the Board.  While we are quasi-judicial, we are not a court of law, and thus have more limited roles,” Estep said.

Estep added that she had no evidence that NHCS had been anything but “fully cooperative” with state and federal investigators looking into some of the issues in Murphy and Edgerton’s complaint. Nichols concurred with Estep’s response.

Justice disagreed with Estep’s view of the board’s need or ability to investigate.

“I do not agree with Ms. Estep’s statement. It is the responsibility of the School Board is to set policy and provide oversight of the superintendent and thus his employees via that relationship. It is a quasi-legal body that can conduct investigations if it sees fit to provide that oversight. There are many ways to go about this and the board also has the power of subpoena and other legal tools at its disposal,” Justice said.

Wortman also noted that the board did have some options.

“I have never said that we are the last line of defense although I do believe other Board members have. In reality, North Carolina General Statutes (NCGS), in certain situations, provide appeal mechanisms for those that come before the Board. Depending on the situation and the subject matter discussed, those remedies may not be limited to appeals to our court system,” Wortman said.

Beaulieu said he considered the Board of Education an “appeals board,” that is one that lacks a “legal mechanism to launch investigations” without another party initiating an appeal.

“Those would include employee disciplinary actions, student expulsions, and student long terms suspensions or through a grievance process…we are at the end of those processes,” Beaulieu said.

Beaulieu added that, while he didn’t believe the board had the legal power to investigate, that any evidence of criminal wrongdoing would be turned over to the authorities. He also noted that he looked forward to seeing the results of several ongoing federal Title IX investigations into NHCS, stating “I think it is important that [those results] be publicized as soon as they become available.”

Falling through the cracks?

In North Carolina, there is no statute of limitations on felony sexual assault (which is how prosecutors are able to pursue charges against former NHCS teacher Michael Kelly based on offenses dating back years).

However, misdemeanor crimes and civil claims do have limitations, as do federal complaints.

Workplace discrimination and Title IX violations have a 180-day statute of limitations. According to OCR records, several complaints against NHCS have been dismissed because they “were not timely.” This includes the initial complaints filed in the Sarah Johnson case. The Johnson family, however, was later able to successfully file additional complaints due to alleged incidents of retaliation.

Still, as many families may not understand the way civil or criminal statutes of limitation work, the question remains – what about cases that haven’t been handled by law enforcement?

For Estep, Nichols, and Beaulieu, this question underscores the importance of families coming forward with their complaints.

“I can’t speak to why someone would not have filed an OCR complaint in a timely manner, if he/she/they felt they had the evidence to do so,” Estep said. “If that person is still an employee in the system, there is a grievance procedure that can and should be followed, and if they are a student or parent, there are complaint protocols as well. If it is a bullying situation, that can and should be investigated by our bullying investigator. All of these forms are available on our website. I realize sometimes it seems intimidating to go through the steps of a complaint process, but that due process exists for a reason: to give both sides a fair chance to state their case and a paper trail.”

Estep added, “if anyone has any information or evidence, not nebulous allegations, on any sort of wrongdoing, I would strongly suggest they turn over such evidence to the relevant outside agency.”

Beaulieu noted that, in cases were statutes of limitations have passed, going public with a story may be the best way.

Beaulieu said these stories could come to light “[t]he same way that other investigations have come to light where the statute of limitations has passed. By courageous women – and, yes, even men – coming forward to tell their stories of what happened and by journalists who substantiate and investigate those claims and report crimes.”

Justice said the possibility of unreported civil and criminal incidents was “why I want an investigation.”

NHCS settlements?

All of the board members who responded said they were not aware of any current settlement negotiations between NHCS and students or families.

Justice added, “I do not have full access to that information since we have been so busy that I have not thought to ask. Good question. Some situations have been shared with us but I have no idea what the full scope of our legal involvements are in this area.”

NHCS Spokesperson Valita Quattlebaum and NHCS attorney Wayne Bullard were both emailed on Wednesday morning to ask if the school was currently negotiating any settlements as well as how many settlements, if any, had been negotiated over the last five years. On Thursday afternoon Quattlebaum responded to say NHCS was working on a response.

Individual questions

Beaulieu, who has pushed for a full review of NHCS’s Title IX policy, was asked if he thought the school had historically had an adequate understanding of the law.

Beaulieu said, “since this case is under active investigation I think it would be best for a board member not to offer specific opinions on the schools current TItle IX policy  or go into further detail regarding potential mishandling of other cases. I will simply say that the aim of the committee is to ensure that our school system is in compliance and to strengthen and enhance our Title IX procedures.”

Justice and Adams have both discussed meeting with families who have filed complaints or have considered doing so. Both were asked if they felt, from their conversations with these families, that there were systematic problems with the school’s handling of Title IX cases.

Adams did not respond in general.

Justice stated, “Yes,” she did feel there were widespread issues, adding, “and that is why I believe we need an investigation.”

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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