Sunday, March 3, 2024

New Hanover Sheriff’s Office investigating citizen group’s allegations against school administrators, principal

A group of concerned citizens have asked the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office to look into what it alleges may have been criminal failures to report child abuse. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
A group of concerned citizens has asked the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office to look into what it alleges may have been criminal failures to report child abuse. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

Six months after delivering a report on alleged issues in New Hanover schools, the SCEPUL group is taking its concerns to the sheriff’s office.

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — After months of requesting that the New Hanover County Board of Education investigate a half-dozen incidents, including alleged harassment, discrimination, sexual misconduct, and Title IX violations, a citizen’s group have taken their complaint to law enforcement.

The Southern Coalition for Equal Protection Under the Law (SCEPUL), including members Clyde Edgerton, a UNCW professor, and Reverend Dante Murphy, who heads the Pender County NAACP, have been meeting since last summer to discuss a number of allegations, some criminal, some ethical, and others that fall under an administrative failure to follow federal guidelines like those established by Title IX.

Members of SCEPUL presented these issues to the school board earlier this year, asking for the board to have the incidents investigated, either internally or by a third party — the board declined, pointing out that several of the incidents were already being investigated by law enforcement, including allegation of sexual contact with students by former teacher Michael Kelly and sexual texts sent by former teacher’s assistant Nicholas Oates, as well as alleged civil rights violations being investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), including the case of former student Sarah Johnson.

The board has also created a Title IX committee to revise the school’s policies and practices; Chairwoman Lisa Estep and Board Member Nelson Beaulieu acknowledged shortcomings in how the district’s Title IX policy was communicated and taught to students, staff, and administrators; they stopped short of criticizing Deputy Superintendent and Title IX Coordinator Dr. Rick Holliday or admitting to any mishandled incidents.

SCEPUL members Murphy and Edgerton have continued to argue that an investigation is still warranted for a number of reasons, including the possibility of civil rights violations that weren’t reported – because victims weren’t aware of the 180-day statute of limitations, or because they were dissuaded from reporting. They’ve also suggested that there may have been other unreported issues not currently being investigated by law enforcement.

Now, SCEPUL has taken their case – or, rather, cases – to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO).

Alleged failures to report

Murphy and Edgerton met with NHCSO Detective Bailey Fex-Overton and presented allegations that several administrators and top staff failed to report “behaviors of individuals who were engaged in offensive or illegal sexual abuse behavior.”

In North Carolina, school principals and other public employees are required by law to report evidence of child abuse to law enforcement under certain circumstances. Failure to do so is a Class 1 misdemeanor. However, the law contains some caveats, including under NCGS § 115C-288(g) that the act “has occurred on school property.”

Murphy and Edgerton said they presented evidence that there may have been “failure to report” in the cases of Kelly and Oates. According to both group members, they gave Detective Fex-Overton a list of people they believed had potentially failed to report incidents, including Dr. Holliday and Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley, as well as Sam Highsmith, the principal at Myrtle Grove Middle School where Oates was employed.

NHCSO spokesman Lt. Jerry Brewer confirmed the meeting took place and that NHCSO was “investigating the claims made by Murphy.” The Sheriff’s Office said it could not say who, specifically, was being investigated.

It should be noted that the Sheriff’s Office investigates the majority of complaints, provided they are not completely implausible.

Response from board, administration

New Hanover County Board of Education members, including Chairwoman Estep, affirmed that the board would cooperate with any law enforcement efforts, but noted it would not be prudent to comment on any active investigation.

Board Member Judy Justice added, “New Hanover County Schools will fully cooperate with any outside agency that is looking into the past alleged incidents of ‘failure’ to report. From the beginning of my time on the Board of Education, multiple sources have brought their concerns about student safety to our attention. Student safety should always be our prime concern and if it is discovered that individuals employed by our district have not done so then they need to be held fully accountable.”

Superintendent Markley was shown a general outline of the allegations made by SCEPUL, but said that “without knowing the specifics of their latest allegations,” he was unable to respond or comment.

“It is also my understanding the investigation you are referring to is not one that has been initiated by any law enforcement agency. This investigation is a result of Mr. Edgerton’s and Mr. Murphy’s recent complaint to the Sheriff’s Office, which is obligated to follow up on citizen complaints that they receive. We as a district will, of course, cooperate fully with law enforcement,” Markley said.

[Editor’s note: The original version of this article incorrectly referred to Nicholas Oates as a “former teacher.” Oates was a teacher’s assistant. This article has been updated to correctly identify the nature of his employment.]

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

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