NEW HANOVER COUNTY — The attorney for the New Hanover County School Board denies the schools have entered into negotiations to settle or quiet complaints about mishandling of Title IX cases or other incidents of the schools allegedly failing to protect students.
Since the swearing in of its new board, New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) has faced accusations of a systemic problem, including covering up unethical and potentially illegal behavior.
It has also been suggested that the board has entered into negotiations, including the use of gag orders, to quiet these complaints.
The accusations come from the Southern Coalition for Equal Protections Under the Law (SCEPUL), a group including Reverend Dante A. Murphy, Pender County NAACP president, and Clyde Edgerton, a UNCW professor; the group is requesting that the new board initiate an investigation into the issue.
The board has largely denied the group’s claims and, with the exception of newly elected board member Judy Justice, has favored deferring investigation to ongoing cases being handled by state and federal authorities.
The board’s attorney, Wayne Bullard, also specifically denied that the settlements and related “gag-orders” have been used to quiet any of the case mentioned by SCEPUL.
“Neither the Board nor its insurance companies have entered into any settlements of the complaints alleged by Rev Murphy. Neither the Board nor its insurance companies are now, nor have they been in the past, in negotiations to settle any of the complaints in the Rev. Murphy’s report,’” Bullard said.
Bullard said there were several conversations regarding two incidents in the SCEPUL request, including the Forest Hills Spanish immersion program — a program challenged as racially inequitable by Edgerton and documented in StarNews as “overwhelmingly white” at the time.
“To answer your questions fully and in the interest of full transparency, I can tell you that [Superintendent Tim Markley] did apparently resolve in 2016, three complaints by parents of minority children who complained that they were not admitted to the Spanish Immersion Program when it was at Forest Hills. The complaints were resolved by offering them admission into the program the next year, after it moved to Gregory,” Bullard said. “There was no settlement agreement. There were no negotiations. The parents asked that their children be admitted and they were.”
Bullard also noted conversations about the case of Sarah Johnson, which is currently being reviewed by the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights.
“There were communications in 2015 between school system staff (including me) and the Johnson family or their legal representatives concerning the steps the school took to separate the students at school while the allegations were being investigated. Again, there was no settlement. However, in a broad sense, I suppose those communications could be considered ‘negotiations’ over an interim measure but they did not completely resolve any legal dispute,” Bullard wrote.
Sovereign immunity vs. settlements
It’s worth noting that, prior to 2009, the school boards of New Hanover and other North Carolina counties successfully prevailed over a variety of civil cases by claiming governmental immunity, an extension of sovereign immunity, the legal principle that citizens cannot sue the government (more about immunity at the UNC School of Government).
Government boards and bodies waive their right to immunity if they carry insurance for a specific liability, but because the New Hanover School Board did not carry liability insurance for “sexual acts, sexual molestation, sexual harassment, sexual assault, or sexual misconduct of any kind” and “negligent hiring, negligent retention, and/or negligent supervision,” it was able to successfully appeal a 2006 suit that charged the school failed to protect a student from sexual assault by a fellow student.
The case eventually went to the North Carolina Supreme Court, which overturned the Court of Appeals on June 18, 2009, by ruling that the state constitutional right to an education outweighed the school’s immunity.
Settlements over the last five years
According to Bullard, NHCS has settled 42 claims in the past five years, not including worker’s compensation claims. Of these 42 claims, 25 were “automobile wreck settlements” where NHCS drivers caused accidents.
Several of them would have been covered by the Board’s insurance policy, but the damages were less than the deductible.
Bullard also noted the board routinely settles incidents involving surety bonds, during which the board technically enters a settlement, but receives rather than pays out money.
Because under North Carolina statute school boards are the beneficiary of fees and fines in their county, when someone breaks a bond by not appearing in court – and a bail company has to pay that bond – the money goes to the schools.
In some circumstances, the bail company can return that person to court and petition for the return of some of the bond amount the company paid. Usually the amount is several thousand dollars — however, Bullard included one incident on the list below because the amount of the bond was exceptionally high.
The remaining settlements from 2014 to February of 2019, with summaries provided by Bullard, are listed below:
- Minor student M.C. – 2014. The Board settled this claim for $1,217.00, which was below the Board’s deductible on its liability coverage at that time. Parents claimed a student with severe peanut allergies was exposed to peanuts on afield trip and school staff were negligent in not preventing it.
- Archie – 2014. The Board settled this claim for $60.59, which was below the Board’s deductible for liability coverage at that time. A driver was proceeding on 41st Street by the Hoggard softball field and a Hoggard player hit a ball over the fence into the street and broke a mirror on her car. The driver claimed that the coaching staff had positioned the batter too close to the fence for batting practice. The batters were hitting from the outfield, not home plate.
- Charter Day School – 2014. The Board settled a lawsuit against it by a local charter school for $86,000.00. By law, the Board must pay to local charter schools part of the funding the Board receives based on the number of students from New Hanover County that attend the charter schools. The lawsuit concerned how the per-pupil amount was calculated.
- Tobe-Williams – 2014. The Board settled a lawsuit by an Assistant Principal whose employment contract was not renewed by the Board, for $99,000.00, half of which was paid by the Board and the other half by the Board’s liability carrier. The employee had alleged that her non-renewal was improper.
- Rylander – 2015. The Board settled a claim for $676.93, which was below its liability deductible at that time. The claim was by a driver who claimed her car was damaged by rebar extending upwards from a parking bumper in the student parking lot at New Hanover High School. The owner alleged it was a dangerous condition.
- White – 2015. The Board settled a claim for $1,185.73, which was below the Boards liability deductible at the time. The claim was by a driver who claimed her car was damaged by rebar extending upwards from a parking bumper in the parking lot of New Hanover High School. The driver alleged it was a dangerous condition.
- Minor student D.B. – 2015. The Board settled a claim for $1,000.00 by the parent of an elementary school student who suffered a serious personal injury after falling from the horizontal ladder at Winter Park Elementary School. The settlement was under the Board’s deductible at the time. The parent alleged that there was insufficient mulch or sand under the equipment to cushion the fall.
- Department of Labor – 2015. The Board settled an assessment of penalties by the NC Department of Labor for $20,475.00 due to alleged safety violations committed by maintenance workers that resulted in workplace injuries.
- Minor student D.T. – 2016. The Board settled a claim by the parent of a student at Williston for $599.97, which was below the Board’s liability deductible at the time. The claim was due to an incident where a loose piece of doorframe fell and struck the student causing minor injuries.
- North River Insurance Company – 2015. The Board settled a claim against it by this bail bond surety company concerning the forfeiture of a bail bond in a local criminal case. In this particular case, the surety company posted a bail bond in the sum of $100,000.00, the defendant did not appear for court, the bond was forfeited, and the surety paid the money to the Clerk who sent it to the Board. The surety then located the defendant, brought him to court, and petitioned for a full refund of the money it had paid. The Board settled the matter by agreeing to refund the sum of $40,000.00 to the surety company and keeping the remainder of the $100,000.00 payment.
- 2014 – 2016. The Exceptional Children’s Department settled three claims by parents of students with disabilities under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The claims involved allegations by the parents that the New Hanover County Schools had not provided all of the special educational services to which the students were entitled. The settlements involved the NHCS agreeing to do things such as hiring a consultant to make recommendations for needed educational services, providing extra tutoring to the students, revisions to the student’s Individualized Education Programs, performing additional educational evaluations of the students, and additional training of staff on applicable regulations. In one of these cases, the NHCS agreed to reimburse the parent the sum of $5,503.04 for attorney’s fees and in the other the NHCS agreed to reimburse the parent $4,200.00 for the cost of an educational evaluation, private tutoring services and attorney’s fees.
- Gina Whaley – 2017. The Board’s insurance company settled this claim for $35,000.00. Visitor at a school function tripped and fell on the sidewalk while leaving campus and received serious personal injuries. She alleged the sidewalk had a large uneven crack and the lighting was poor.
- Minor student A.M. – 2017. The Board’s insurance company settled this claim for $15,820.00. Student was waiting in line for a parking pass at the school and passed out, hit the floor and sustained personal injuries. Parent alleged that there was no air conditioning in the school and the student passed out due to the heat. Parent claimed that students should not have been required to wait in a hot building for a pass.
- Kathy Kearney – 2018. The Board’s insurance company settled this claim for $468.00. Teacher had parked her car in the parking lot of the school and a gust of wind blew a piece of debris from a nearby pile against her car causing damage to it. The debris was from Hurricane Florence but had not been covered or secured.
- Patricia Murray – 2018. The Board’s insurance company settled this claim for $2,000.00. Visitor at a fundraising event at a school tripped and fell on a piece of metal in the hallway and sustained personal injuries.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.