The assistant district attorney said the fact that school hadn’t reported its investigation into Kelly to law enforcement was ‘upsetting’ and ‘disturbing.’
WILMINGTON — A three-hour plea hearing this week brought to a close the investigation of former Isaac Bear teacher Michael Earl Kelly, but it’s only intensified questions about how New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) handled inappropriate or illegal behavior by staff. The school district has denied it ever investigated Kelly.
During the hearing, Kelly pleaded guilty to 59 charges involving inappropriate and sexual interactions – including sexual contact – with his students at Laney High School from 2003 to 2006, and at Isaac Bear Early College from 2006 until his arrest in 2018.
Kelly admitted wrongdoing without contesting any of the charges and was sentenced to 17-31 years in prison. But in her closing arguments, asking Superior Court Judge John E. Noble for strict sentencing, Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan pointed to the school system’s role — and responsibility — in Kelly’s years of child abuse.
2006 internal investigation
“It is really concerning and so upsetting and disturbing that even the defendant admitted that he had been accused of exposing himself right when he started at Isaac Bear, that the school had mounted an investigation,” Jordan told the court. “I could not find any indication that anything had been reported to law enforcement.”
Jordan noted this was nearly twelve years before Kelly was finally arrested.
“[The school] had cleared the defendant of that accusation and clearly that accusation was correct – which then let the defendant continue offending on students for another more than decade in his time at Isaac Bear,” Jordan said.
Judge Nobles interjected, asking Jordan: “You’re condemning the school?”
Jordan nodded, saying, “I think based on what the defendant has said, it’s hard to get around the fact that it had been reported.”
In an interview after the hearing, Jordan confirmed that Kelly had told the federal law enforcement agent who interviewed him that a student accused him of exposing himself during his first year teaching at Isaac Bear in 2006. Kelly told law enforcement that the school investigated him and cleared him.
It’s not clear which student accused Kelly, but by Kelly’s own admission he was engaged in sexually inappropriate behavior while at Laney High School as early as 2003 and continued that behavior at Isaac Bear, including incidents with one student that lasted between 2006 and 2008. Thus, as Jordan said in court, the accusations were true.
What evidence the school gathered on Kelly – and why it was not sufficient to discipline or fire him – remains unclear; the school district has routinely cited state and federal laws protecting personnel records in both the Kelly and Nicholas Oates case.
However, according to Jordan, law enforcement had no record that anyone from the school district attempted to contact them about the accusations against Kelly.
Failure to report?
NHCS denied Jordan’s claims in a press sent by Chief Communications Officer Valita S. Quattlebaum.
“The district is aware of the statements made in court today by Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan about Mr. Kelly’s recollection of events from 2006. Upon learning about the statements, we contacted two former (retired) NHCS’ administrators Dr. Sherry Broome and Ms. Matilda Gurley, the individuals who served as principal of Isaac Bear Early College High School during the 2006 and 2007 school year and spoke to both of them via phone. Neither Dr. Broome nor Mrs. Gurly investigated an incident involving Mr. Kelly for an allegation of indecent exposure during their tenure as principal. Both principals stated that no such incident was reported to them. We will follow up with the District Attorney’s Office to discuss this matter.”
The issue is a sensitive one — in part because it may be a criminal issue. In North Carolina, school principals and other public employees are required by law to report suspicion or allegations of child abuse to law enforcement under certain circumstances. Failure to do so is a Class 1 misdemeanor. The law contains some caveats, including under NCGS § 115C-288(g) that the act “has occurred on school property.” In Kelly’s case, he admitted to inappropriate behavior both at Laney and Isaac Bear, as well as on UNCW property.
Two weeks ago, 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, took their concerns over this exact issue to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office.
For six months, SCEPUL asked the New Hanover County Board of Education to look into the possibility that there may have been “failure to report” in the cases of Kelly and Oates, among other issues. After a series of public hearings – including some emotional clashes – Murphy and Edgerton went to the Sheriff’s Office, which confirmed a detective had been assigned to the issue as an open investigation.
Jordan also confirmed that investigators discussed a complaint filed in early 2004 by Caroline Kuebler, the mother of a student at Laney. Kuebler, who kept a copy of her complaint, said she was concerned about Kelly. Then-Laney Principal Dr. Rick Holliday, now Deputy Superintendent, has adamantly denied he ever received the complaint. The school system has stated it only keeps complaints dating back to 2004.
Jordan said she was not aware of any other incidents where a complaint had been filed but the school system had not contacted law enforcement.
Editor’s note: This afternoon the Board of Education was sent a verbatim version of Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan’s comments in court and asked for comment. No board members have responded yet. Asked about the issue, Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley referred to the school’s press release.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001