Tuesday, July 23, 2024

What we did, and didn’t, learn at the New Hanover Board of Education press conference

From left: Board of Education members Bill Rivenbark, Nelson Beaulieu, Stefanie Adams, Chairwoman Lisa Estep (at podium), and Judy Justice; board members David Wortmand and Jeannette Nichols were not present. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

WILMINGTON — On Thursday evening, the New Hanover County Board of Education held a press conference to address the issue of Roland Grise band teacher Peter Frank, but despite a lengthy back and forth with the media not much actual information was conveyed.

Related: Wilmington teacher kept photos of female students, NHCS counseled him repeatedly on ‘inappropriate relationships’

Announced with about an hour’s notice, the press conference came after media outlets sent questions to the Board concerning Peter Michael Frank, 47. The questions stemmed from search warrants, obtained independently by both Port City Daily and WECT, that showed not just a pattern of inappropriate behavior by Frank, but that the New Hanover County School (NHCS) district had been aware of this since 1999.

At the conference, Board Chairwoman Lisa Estep confirmed that the Board had received copies of that warrant two days earlier; when asked why the Board did not immediately address the disturbing material in the warrant, Estep said the Board was waiting for more information.

Following a prepared statement, reporters asked many of the same questions that had been appearing on social media throughout the week: why was Frank still employed? Why had he been allowed to work at the school for so long despite documented “inappropriate relationships” with students? And who, ultimately, was responsible for what is now the third case of a sexual predator operating in the New Hanover County School system?

Below: Video of the conference, including Estep’s statement and questions from the press [Courtesy of WECT]

Board’s statement

Estep began her statement by clarifying the Frank had been placed on unpaid suspension on Wednesday, information that district had provided in a statement the previous evening.

Estep then pivoted to an unusual move.

“Based on the search warrant documents that were released, and in order to be as open as possible with the public, the Board will be considering releasing parts of Mr. Frank’s personnel file,” Estep said.

It is unclear how the Board will be able to do this. In the past, the Board and NHCS have routinely cited the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and state personnel laws when declining to release or discuss material relating to NHCS employee behavior. On only one occasion, the district offered to release disciplinary material on an employee — but only with that employee’s permission.

Estep noted that Frank’s arrest is the third in recent history, following on the heels of Michael Earl Kelly, now in prison, and Nicholas Lavon Oates, who died awaiting trial.

“We acknowledge that a third arrest for sexual abuse in less than two years is jarring and concerning to everyone,” Estep said, adding that the Board has planned a “work session over the weekend to discuss the best path forward for our system.”

Estep reiterated her past request that anyone with information about potential abuse to reach out to the school administration, law enforcement, or NHCS’s online and anonymous complaint portal. The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office has also created a dedicated phone line for the Frank investigation (910-798-4399).

Unanswered questions

After Estep’s prepared statement, a terse series of questions with the media followed — this was due, in part, to the fact that the press conference had been convened to discuss Frank’s arrest and suspension, but the Board announced at the outset it would not answer personnel questions — the only real questions that members of the media had shown up to ask.

Why was Frank still employed?

The first question was, given the damning evidence in the search warrant for Frank, including Frank’s own admission of inappropriate behavior and his sexual attraction to young students, why was Frank still employed?

Estep noted that for teachers with “tenure” the Board was limited to issuing suspensions with pay, followed by suspensions without pay. The state eliminated “career status,” also known as tenure,” in 2013, but in 2016 the North Carolina Supreme Court struck down the move, preserving tenure for those teachers who already had it, which would include Frank, who was hired in 1997.

Under the law and the Board’s policies, board members noted, only Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley could make the decision to fire Frank. Markley was out of the office on Wednesday; Estep and other board members said they could not speak to what Markley has or has not done.

When Michael Earl Kelly was arrested, Markley and former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday visited him in jail as part of Markley’s own personal investigation; Markley initiated firing proceedings the following day. Markley does not appear to have made such a visit in Frank’s case.

Estep said she could not discuss personnel issues, including whether the letters of concern in Frank’s file had been shared with law enforcement.

What about past issues and complaints?

According to the search warrant for Frank’s personnel record, he had been counseled by the district for his inappropriate relationships with students. Many asked, why had he been allowed to remain employed?

The Board declined to answer, but said the if the Board voted to release parts of Frank’s file it would “hopefully answer some questions.”

“I can’t answer for something that happened years ago … I can’t go back and look at what happened 20 years ago … all I can do is go forward,” Estep said, pointing to recent efforts by the Board to improve the district’s ability to respond to complaints.

There was also the issue of an email sent to the Board in April of 2019, saying that a student — who was “pleading anonymity” — had complained of sexual assault by a male middle school music teacher. There were only several employees who fit that description, including Frank.

Estep said it would be an “invasion of privacy” to go through employees’ personnel files without more information. Board member Nelson Beaulieu noted that after receiving the email that Superintendent Markley had been notified; Beaulieu added that he believed on at least two occasions Markley contacted the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office about it.

Board member Bill Rivenbark also weighed in.

“A so-called concerned parent said she’s known about this for two years, and called the administration. We investigated, the Sheriff’s Department [sic] investigated — they found nothing wrong. We did our part. This person, if they knew more than we do, why didn’t they call the Sheriff’s Department and tell them,” Rivenbark.

Asked if he was shifting responsibility to the parent, Rivenbark denied he was blaming anyone. Rivenbark acknowledged that the district would have more information than any parent and would be better equipped to investigate — but then reiterated “if it was my child and the Board didn’t do anything, I would go to law enforcement.”

Who is accountable?

Towards the end of the conference, the elephant in the room was addressed: at what point does the presence of multiple child predators employed by NHCS become more than individual incidents and instead an indication of an issue with the school’s administration, including Superintendent Markley?

Asked if the Board still had faith in the administration, Estep said that she couldn’t speak for the board, and then declined to answer if she herself had faith in the board.

WECT reporter Alex Guarino asked Estep how many incidents of sexual abuse by NHCS employees it would take before the Board considered taking action against the administration, asking Estep directly, “when is enough enough?”

Estep declined to answer. Other reporters asked the same question, asking what the Board’s breaking point would be to fire Markley.

Estep didn’t answer, but Rivenbark said the “one” was the breaking point; he then backed off, saying it was a question for Markley and that he couldn’t speak about personnel issues. It’s worth noting that, unlike other NHCS employees, superintendents are hired and fired by the Board, and their contracts and evaluations are both public documents.

Estep did not answer a broader question about an alleged “cover-up culture” at NHCS. This includes allegations, including those in an ongoing lawsuit against the Board, that current and former top administrators had information about sexual misconduct by NHCS employees and did not act. Multiple teachers, parents, and students have come forward to say they reported misconduct and inappropriate behavior by former teachers.

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

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