NEW HANOVER COUNTY — Last week, the District Attorney’s office confirmed authorities were investigating allegations that New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) administration and staff failed to report potential child abuse and obstructed justice. Those investigations apparently initially focused on an alleged 2006 incident, but a number of parents and former students have come forward to say they reported incidents – including to the Board of Education – even earlier, as far back as 1999.
At least two parents and two former students say the filed complaints about teacher behavior – many, but not all, about convicted sex-offender Michael Earl Kelly – to Dr. Rick Holliday, the NHCS’s outgoing deputy superintendent. Holliday, who was named in at least two investigations into failure to report in the school district, announced his retirement on Monday; Holliday, the district, and the Board of Education have all declined to comment on whether his retirement was related to those investigations or calls to fire him.
Students allege complaints from 2003
The two students were both Laney High School students during the 2003-2004 school year; at the time, Kelly was a science teacher and Holliday was principal.
The first student, John Franklin Register, was a Freshman that year. According to Register, on more than one occasion Kelly followed him into the bathroom and positioned himself nearby, attempting to look directly at the student’s genitals while also displaying his own. On several other occasions, Register said Kelly “adjusted” himself, making direct eye contact while touching his own groin.
Register, who is gay, said he was already open about his sexuality at the time and understood that these were clearly attempted sexual enticements. Register added that, unlike some of Kelly’s other victims who identified as straight, being gay may have allowed him to more quickly sense what Kelly intended. Register did not respond to Kelly’s efforts and instead went to Holliday.
Register described a meeting in Holliday’s office, saying Holliday took notes on a pad of yellow, lined notepaper, on which he took some minimal notes. Register said Holliday did not appear to have written down his name.
According to Register, nothing officially ever came of his meeting with Holliday, but Kelly did not continue to pursue him. Register noted that, since he was not in Kelly’s class, avoiding the teacher was easier than for other students.
(Editor’s note: The second student has asked that we not use his last name. Port City Daily does not usually use anonymous sources; however, in this case, have we verified his identity as one of the FBI’s witnesses in the state’s case against Michael Earl Kelly, as well in the current New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office investigation into the New Hanover County school district.)
The second student, Justin, was 16 and 17 during the 2003-2004 school year. Justin described numerous incidents involving Kelly, including occasions when Kelly showed Justin pornography on a computer in a classroom at Laney (an incident related to authorities as part of the Kelly investigation).
Justin described another incident, not involving Kelly, in which a Driver’s Education teacher allegedly made him perform classwork while sitting in a closed closet; Justin described the incident as “some kind of hazing.”
Justin said on at least two occasions he went to Holliday’s office; once after rumors – later admitted to by Kelly in court – about the teacher showing students pornography began to circulate and he was called into Holliday’s office, and also after the closet incident.
Kelly continued his behavior for another fifteen years, and while he never physically assaulted Justin he did accompany him, while naked, into a YMCA sauna; Justin said he finished his Driver’s Education work with a different staff member, but that the teacher who had harassed him was not fired.
Parents share concerns
Two parents have also come forward to say they took concerns about teachers – including Kelly – to staff and administration, as well as the Board of Education.
Barbara Ann Burnett’s daughter attended Laney High School from 1998 to 2001. Burnett said her daughter was in Kelly’s AP chemistry class and while she “had no negative interactions with him” she “noticed some inappropriate behavior.” More concerning, Burnett said, was the behavior of Richard Priode, who taught at Laney from 1997 to 2001, serving as the band director.
Burnett alleges that Priode “physically assaulted” and “sexually harassed, with no physical contact” her daughter.
Burnett claims that she and her family wrote a total of 19 letters to administration and staff, many directly to Holliday, then-Deputy Superintendent Norman Shearin (who moved to another school district, passing away in 2016), and then-Superintendent John Morris (who retired from the district in 2007). She copied other administrators and board members on those letters. Burnett claims she also wrote letters to then-Chairman of the Board of Education Ed Higgins, as well as former board member Don Hayes (who lost his reelection bid in 2018) and current board member Jeanette Nichols.
Burnett also received letters back from Holliday, Shearin, and Morris. However, her last two letters to Shearin never received responses. That was the end of her correspondence; Burnett said her daughter left Laney and graduated elsewhere.
Priode was not fired as a result of these correspondences, Burnett said, adding that another parent also complained as well.
Priode resigned in 2001 and moved through several other school districts before being arrested in Charlotte in June, 2009, for indecent liberties with a minor student (who went by Jane Doe in the 2011 civil suit against both Priode and the Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education).
In October, 2009, Priode pled guilty to the felony charge and was sentenced to community service and probation.
After Priode’s arrest in June, 2009, Burnett, a former employee of the New Hanover County School district, wrote then-Superintendent Al Lerch as well as all of the sitting board members.
“As a former employee of New Hanover County Schools, I have seen how major concerns are too often swept under the rug while trivial concerns are escalated. I implore the school board and administration to listen carefully to concerns from parents and teachers. Unfortunately, there is a long-standing resignation that concerns will be denied, there are no consequences for not telling the truth, nothing will change, and concerns should be kept to oneself for fear of retaliation. Thus, the bullies keep bullying, the survivors keep surviving, and a lot of talent simply goes away. None of us want to perpetuate such a school system. So please don’t,” Burnett wrote.
Several board members responded, including Higgins and Janice Cavanaugh, expressing concern.
Burnett said she also forwarded her letter to Lerch to the Wilmington Star-News in 2009.
With renewed concerns about teacher behavior in the wake of the Kelly hearing, Burnett said she emailed copies of this information to Holliday, Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley, and the current Board members on Sunday evening.
Another concerned parent is Caroline Kuebler, who first spoke to WECT in February of 2018, shortly after Kelly was arrested. Kuebler produced a copy of a formal complaint sent to the administration (namely, then-Superintendent Morris) dated January 9, 2004, concerning Kelly’s actions; according to Kuebler, she approached first Kelly and then Holliday with concerns about Kelly’s behavior and Kelly retaliated by docking her son’s grade. After exhausting her options with Kelly and Holliday, she then went filed the complaint.
The school district stated it only kept complaints from the following year (the 2004-2005 school year) and later on file. Holliday denied any recollection of the event, stating categorically that Kuebler never contacted him; he has since declined to comment on the issue.
The school district’s response
Both the board of education, the district, and Holliday were given details of the interviews with the former students on Thursday, June 27.
Neither the Board or Holliday have responded.
On Thursday, spokesperson Valita Quattlebaum said the district would be able to respond, but first requested contact information for the former students. Port City Daily declined (it is against Port City Daily’s editorial policy to give out source information without expressed permission).
On Friday, June 28, General Counsel Wayne Bullard reiterated the request and asked for the story to be delayed so that he could personally speak with the former students first.
On the advice of legal counsel, Port City Daily again declined to provide contact information for the former students on Monday, July 1 — in part because the district administration is under investigation. Port City Daily did offer to give Bullard’s contact information to them if he would explain what he wanted to ask them (Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley, Board Chairwoman Lisa Estep, Quattlebaum, and others were CC’d on the email). Bullard did not respond.
On Tuesday, Quattlebaum responded “the district is reviewing all the information you mentioned that has just been received,” but did not address her and Bullard’s request for student contact info or what the district wanted to ask the former students.
Quattlebaum also referred to the Board’s Monday-night statement, “We will continue to continue to cooperate with any and all ongoing investigations. Once the investigations are complete, we will take appropriate action.”
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at firstname.lastname@example.org, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001