NEW HANOVER COUNTY — For six months the New Hanover County Board of Education has declined requests to perform an internal investigation into allegations of mishandled incidents with students, saying it did not have the authority or jurisdiction to do so, or that it was deferring to law enforcement. Now, that appears to have changed.
Beginning in December, groups of concerned citizens, including Southern Coalition for Equal Protection Under the Law (SCEPUL), Women Organizing for Wilmington (WOW), and others have called for the school to conduct either an internal or external investigation of numerous alleged incidents including harassment, assault, and civil rights violations.
Members of the Board of Education, including Chairwoman Lisa Estep, have repeatedly cited the board’s “quasi-judicial” status, and noted that many of the issues brought forward by SCEPUL and others were already under investigation by local, state, and/or federal law enforcement. The Board has also declined to pursue an outside, third-party investigation. One board member, Judy Justice, who was newly elected in 2018, has dissented from the rest of the board, suggesting an investigation is warranted.
Limited internal investigation
Despite that, the board announced Monday night, after a closed-session meeting, that it would perform a limited internal investigation into claims made by former teacher Michael Earl Kelly, who told law enforcement the school district investigated allegations of his sexual misconduct in 2006. Kelly alleged that he had been cleared by the school district, but according to the District Attorney’s office, the schools made no effort to contact law enforcement — a violation of state law.
Immediately following the release of this information on Tuesday, June 25, school district spokeswoman Valita Quattlebaum released a statement, refuting Kelly’s version of events and denying any wrongdoing.
Several board members declined to comment following the district’s denial, but a special closed-session meeting was called. On the day of the meeting, Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday – who is named in complaints about Kelly’s time at Laney High School, where Holliday was principal, among other issues – announced his resignation. Holliday, the district, and the board declined to say whether the timing of Holliday’s announcement was related to increasing pressure on the school system to fire him.
Then, just an hour before the board meeting, District Attorney Ben David announced that he, in cooperation with Sheriff Ed McMahon, had asked the State Bureau of Investigation to take over looking into allegations, not only of failure to report, but of obstruction of justice.
Following that announcement and the board’s closed session meeting, Estep delivered the board’s statement, saying:
“To reiterate prior statements from the district, the New Hanover County Board of Education strongly and completely condemns the actions of Michael Earl Kelly who pled guilty last week to numerous crimes. The Board expresses our sorrow to all the victims and their families affected by Kelly’s heinous acts. In light of allegations made against New Hanover County Schools during the recent sentencing of Kelly, the NHC Board of Education has launched an internal investigation into incidents that allegedly occurred in 2006. We will continue to fully cooperate with any and all ongoing investigations. Once the investigations are complete, we will take appropriate action.”
It remains unclear what caused the Board to change its mind, as the allegations made by Kelly are being investigated by law enforcement (now at the state level) — the reason the board had given in the past for not investigating.
Under state law, the Board has fairly broad powers to investigate and to punish those who don’t cooperate. According to North Carolina General Statute § 115C-45(a) the Board can both subpoena and hold people in contempt:
Local boards of education shall have power to issue subpoenas for the attendance of witnesses. Subpoenas for the attendance of witnesses may be issued in any and all matters which may lawfully come within the powers of the board and which, in the discretion of the board, require investigation. Local boards of education may request the chief district court judge or the judge’s designee to grant approval for the local board of education to issue a subpoena for the production of all tangible things in matters where an employee is suspected of committing job-related misconduct and which, in the discretion of the board, require investigation. Subpoenas for the production of tangible things may include, but are not limited to, documents, papers, letters, maps, books, photographs, films, sound recordings, magnetic or other tapes, electronic communications, electronic data-processing records, artifacts, or other documentary material, regardless of physical form or characteristics. In making the determination to approve the subpoena, the judge shall consider the following: (i) whether the subpoena allows reasonable time for compliance; (ii) if the subpoena requires disclosure of privileged or other protected matter and if any exception or waiver applies to the privilege or protection; (iii) whether the individual would be subject to undue burdens or expenses; and (iv) whether the subpoena is otherwise unreasonable or oppressive.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001