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Friday, May 17, 2024

Deep Dive: A long hard look at New Hanover County Schools’ arrests, allegations, and administration [Free read]

Editor's note: This article was awarded second place in education reporting in the North Carolina Press Association's 2020 editorial contest.

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)
The New Hanover County Schools Administration building. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

WILMINGTON — For the third time in two years, an employee with the New Hanover County Schools district has been arrested and charged with felony sex crimes against students. As details emerged, tensions and emotions ran high, until the week ended with an off-kilter press conference that left the public with more questions than answers — and a damaged sense of trust in the school system.

Peter Michael Frank, 47, was arrested on Monday after he surrendered himself to the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO). Frank was charged with 12 felony counts of taking indecent liberties with children and students, with allegations dating back to 2003.

Frank, the band teacher at Roland-Grise Middle School, is the third New Hanover County School (NHCS) employee to be arrested on this type of charge in recent years. In early 2018, Isaac Bear Early College High School teacher Michael Earl Kelly was arrested on numerous charges; Kelly pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 16-31 years in prison last year. In the summer of 2018, special education teacher’s assistant Nicholas Lavon Oates was arrested for having a sexual relationship with a 13-year old student at Myrtle Grove Middle School. Oates died while awaiting trial.

In all three cases, evidence emerged that NHCS’s administration had prior knowledge of misconduct by these employees for years — and sometimes decades — before they were ultimately arrested. NHCS has routinely stated this knowledge could not be made public because of personnel laws. But others have suggested the failure to disclose, or at least contact law enforcement, was unethical and possibly criminal (including a coalition of concerned residents and the local law firms pursuing a civil suit against the district). In the case of Kelly, one of the most experienced prosecutors in the District Attorney’s office condemned the school system in open court for its failure to report sexual misconduct.

These situations are echoed by an earlier incident, in which former NHCS employee Richard Priode was reported by a parent but then left the district — only to be arrested for having a sexual relationship with a student in Charlotte.

Much of this is now evidence in part of an ongoing investigation by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation (SBI) in conjunction with a special prosecutor in the North Carolina Attorney General’s office; state authorities are investigating charges that administrators, including Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley, failed to act on knowledge of sexual misconduct by NHCS employees — a crime under North Carolina state law.

Combine this with recent allegations against the administration for attempting to intimidate parents, students, and employees who speak out, leading to multiple local and federal complaints — one which led to the suspension without pay of Markley — and it is possible to see how the public’s faith in the school system has been tested.

Richard Priode

Laney High School was the target of a 'hoax' threat that circulated on social media. (Port City Daily photo / File)
Laney High School. (Port City Daily photo / File)

Before Kelly, Oates, or Frank, there was Richard Priode, who served as the band director at Laney High School from 1997 to 2001.

At the time, a parent alleged that Priode had “physically assaulted” and “sexually harassed, with no physical contact” her daughter. The parent wrote a total of 19 letters to administration and staff, including former Deputy-Superintendent Rick Holliday (who was then the Laney principal), former Board of Education members Don Hayes and Ed Higgins, as well as board member Jeanette Nichols, who is still serving on the Board today.

[Note: You can find the parent’s full account here, also a free read.]

Priode was not fired as a result of these correspondences and according to NHCSO, there is no record of any arrest or investigation into him, no local law enforcement records at all aside from a minor traffic stop.

Instead, 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.

Michael Earl Kelly

Michael Earl Kelly now faces a total of 55 charges, with offense dates as far back as 2003 and as recently as 2017. (Port City Daily photo | BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
Michael Earl Kelly faced 55 charges, with offense dates as far back as 2003 and as recently as 2017. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

One of the earliest complaints against Kelly came from concerned parent Caroline Kuebler, who first spoke to WECT in February of 2018, shortly after Kelly was arrested.

Missing records

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 filed the complaint.

The school district stated it only kept complaints on file starting the following 2004-2005 school year — the same year that Holliday was promoted from Laney Principal to Executive Director of Instructional Services, an administrative position.

Holliday denied any recollection of the complaint, stating categorically that Kuebler never contacted him; he declined to comment on the issue, refusing to respond to emails, calls, and, on several occasions, questions asked in person.

Kuebler is not the only one who said she complained about Kelly.

Students complained: The FBI listened, Holliday apparently didn’t

Two former Laney students both went on the record, describing taking complaints about Kelly’s behavior to Holliday’s office, but to no avail. One of the students described Kelly’s sexualized behavior, in particular, his habit of following students to the bathroom and standing near them at the urinal. The other student described Kelly joining him naked in a YMCA sauna, as well as showing him pornography (these incidents were later relayed to the FBI and other law enforcement agencies and became part of the criminal case against Kelly).

[You can find a fuller account from both students, here, also as a free read.]

In both cases, the students said Holliday appeared to have taken no action. In civil court filings, Holliday has sworn affidavits stating he had no knowledge of Kelly’s misconduct.

Prosecutor condemns the school system

Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan asked the court to increase Michael Earl Kelly's bond to $2 million, saying increased charges were forthcoming. (Port City Daily photo | BENJAMIN SCHACHTMAN)
During the first court appearance, Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan asked the court to increase Michael Earl Kelly’s bond to $2 million, saying increased charges were forthcoming. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

During Kelly’s plea hearing last year, Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan revealed that Kelly had told authorities NHCS had investigated and cleared him of some of the crimes he would later admit to.

“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.

NHCS administrators and Board members repeatedly denied any knowledge of Kelly’s wrongdoing prior to his arrest (and have filed sworn statements in civil court to that effect). It remains unclear how Kelly would have benefitted from fabricating this story to law enforcement. It is clear, however, the Jordan felt strongly enough about the issue to condemn the school system in open court.

Following Jordan’s courtroom bombshell, District Attorney Ben David confirmed there was an active investigation into the administration.

Less than a week later, Holliday abruptly announced his retirement. Just hours after Holliday’s announcement, David and Sheriff Ed McMahon jointly called for the investigation to be sent to the SBI. Some considered the move a tacit indictment of Holliday, but McMahon would later hold a ceremony at the Sheriff’s Office to personally recognize Holliday for his “years of service.” NHCS held also special recognition ceremony for Holliday during a retreat, but blocked the public and the press from entering until Holliday had already been recognized.

Questions about Holliday’s foreknowledge of Kelly’s misconduct continues to be at issue in both the SBI investigation and the class action lawsuit against NHCS.

Nicholas Lavon Oates

Nicholas Lavon Oates, 39, was arrested last year for statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child --- but it was for from his first arrest. (Port City Daily photo / New Hanover County Sheriff's Office)
Nicholas Lavon Oates, 39, was arrested in 2018 for statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child — but it was far from his first arrest. (Port City Daily photo / New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office)

Nicholas Lavon Oates never made it to trial, which has — at least for the time being — prevented the public from getting answers to serious questions about why he was hired, despite a history of violent and sexual misconduct, and why he wasn’t fired, despite having a sexual relationship with a student.

Oates died last year in New Hanover Regional Medical Center, apparently from a chronic condition which he had been suffering from while awaiting trial for over a year. Details on his condition were sparse, and the Office of the North Carolina Medical Examiner has not yet returned the results of any post-mortem analysis.

Despite his death, Oates is still part of the SBI investigation into NHCS, and so District Attorney Ben David — who had repeatedly promised to provide clarity on the case when it came to a hearing — has declined to comment.

Hired despited a history of violence

Questions about Oates include why NHCS hired him in the first place.

According to public records from New Hanover County District Court, the Wilmington Police Department (WPD), the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO), and other law enforcement agencies, Oates was accused of communicating threats, false imprisonment (kidnapping), physical and sexual assault, threatening multiple women with a firearm, as well as repeatedly threatening to commit suicide if women broke off sexual relationships with him.

[You can find a fuller account of those incidents here, as a free read.]

NHCS admitted to being aware of two of the arrests, which were later dismissed, but claimed not to have known the details of the incidents or court orders issued against Oates for violent behavior. NHCS declined to discuss why someone with a violent history would be hired, let alone hired to work as a special education teacher’s assistant where he was likely to come in contact with vulnerable students.

Some have suggested that Oates’ brother helped him get the job.

According to his obituary, Oates’s brother is Dr. Jerry Lamont Oates, a former New Hanover County employee and ‘principal of the year’ at Williston Middle School. Dr. Oates was hired as the Executive Director of Human Resources for Brunswick County Schools (BCS) in July of 2015 and became the Superintendent there in October of 2018 (although the district later acknowledged it ‘inadvertently’ broke the law during the hiring process).

Dr. Oates refused to reply to repeated phone calls and emails; Brunswick County Board of Education board members also did not respond to repeated emails.

After repeated attempts, BCS spokesman Daniel Seamans did issue the following statement, which only addressed questions tangentially, at best.

“Superintendent Dr. Jerry L. Oates is leading a new era in Brunswick County Schools that brings a sense of pride in a work environment like no other. His innovative approach to education, like the #IFiredBenDoing movement he just initiated district wide, inspires our staff to look at improving our own lives to, in turn, improve our student’s lives. We feel it is inappropriate to discuss matters that do not pertain to our school system. Thank you.”

Not fired, not arrested, despite a relationship with a student

It also remains unclear why Oates wasn’t fired or arrested when it was discovered he was having a relationship with a student.

Oates was hired at Myrtle Grove Middle School, where he worked from January 19, 2016, until he resigned on February 1, 2017. A year and a half later, Oates was arrested by the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO), charged with statutory rape and indecent liberties with a child — specifically, a student at Myrtle Grove.

Before resigning, Oates was twice suspended without pay but not fired, although sending sexual messages and images seems to be a violation of NHCS policy (number 6442) on teacher-student relationships, which reads in part:

All employees are prohibited from dating, courting or entering into a romantic or sexual relationship with any student enrolled in the school system regardless of the student’s age. Consent is not a defense to this prohibition. Employees engaging in or attempting to engage in such inappropriate conduct shall be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal, and may be subject to criminal action as provided in NCGS §14-202.4 and NCGS §14-27.7.

While a dismissed arrest might not be sufficient to fire a tenured teacher, that should not have impacted the decision to fire Oates. 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 — since Oates was hired in 2013 that would not have applied to him.

NHCS repeatedly told media outlets that state personnel laws and the district’s own policy prevented them from commenting on Oates’ employment or resignation.

In December of 2016, NHCSO investigated Nicholas Oates but did not arrest him. According to WECT, law enforcement was aware that Oates had sent sexually suggestive texts to his then 12-year-old victim, allegedly including messages about the size of his genitals and requests that the girl leave her boyfriend and date Oates.

According to a search warrant filed prior to Oates’ arrest in July of 2018 (but sealed by the court until several months afterward), the victim had been allegedly having sexual contact with Oates since she was 12, had begun a sexual relationship when she was 13, and had allegedly exchanged numerous phone calls, texts, and photos (including nude photos).

It remains unclear how much of this NHCSO knew in 2016, or how thoroughly the case was investigated by either the School Resource Officer (SRO) at Myrtle Grove, NHCSO, or the district itself.

NHCSO has suggested that there was not a cooperative witness (in this case, the young victim who would have been 12 at the time). It’s possible under North Carolina statute for law enforcement to secure an arrest warrant based on evidence, even without a victim’s statement, but it is certainly more difficult. However, it not clear if NHCS allowed the SRO to make a final decision to not arrest Oates, or if that decision came from a higher-ranking individual or Sheriff Ed McMahon himself. NHCS declined to answer who, specifically, made the decision.

NHCSO spokesperson Lt. Jerry Brewer said the Sheriff’s Office could not comment on the Oates investigation as it is still technically active. DA Ben David and Superintendent Markley also declined to comment.

Peter Frank

Peter Michael Frank, 47. (Port City Daily photo / New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office)

The arrest of Peter Michael Frank this week echoes many of the concerns that parents, students, and the public have voiced in the Priode, Kelly, and Oates cases.

According to search warrants for Frank’s NHCS personnel file, records at Roland Grise indicate a history of “inappropriate relationships” with students dating back to 1999 — a pattern of behavior for which he was counseled but never fired or suspended (Frank was suspended without pay once, in 2015, but NHCS claims it was for an incident not involving students).

Despite the evidence against Frank —- including Frank’s own admission of sexual attraction to middle-school students, photos of female students taken surreptitiously and, even more disturbingly, files organizing those photos by name on his home computers — Frank has not been fired.

While the Board of Education correctly pointed out that it can not hire and fire students, board members failed to explain why Superindent Markley had not yet done so.

It’s worth noting that Markley and Holliday visited Kelly in the New Hanover County Detention Facility on the day after his arrest and, immediately after their visit Markley began dismissal proceedings. Kelly, like Frank, was a long-time employee who had ‘career status.’

April 2019 email

It’s also worth discussing an email sent to the Board of Education on April 23, 2019. The email, sent by parent and educator advocate Lynn Shoemaker to Boardmember Nelson Beaulieu and Chairwoman Lisa Estep, encouraged the board to conduct an internal survey to help identify potential misconduct.

Shoemaker wrote that she had been contacted by a young woman who said her younger sister had been “sexually assaulted by her middle school teacher,” a man who was still teaching at the same school.

Shoemaker said she was later able to clarify that the allegation was against a male middle-school band teacher, of which there were apparently only two in the district at the time — one of them being Frank.

Both Beaulieu and Estep responded, urging anyone with “substantive” to contact the administration or law enforcement.

This week, Estep said that contrary to some reports she did not leave the matter there.

“There is absolutely no truth to the allegations that I did not share information with senior staff. Nelson and I met with both Dr. Markley and Dr. Holliday, who at the time was still Deputy Superintendent, and discussed the details of Ms. Shoemaker’s email shortly after we received it. According to Dr. Markley this information was a part of an ongoing discussion with law enforcement.  In July, a Facebook post from Ms. Shoemaker’s site with even more specific information was forwarded to me that I then sent to Dr. Markley, who sent it to law enforcement,” Estep said.

Estep provided copies of emails from Markley to NHCSO Chief Deputy K.W. Sarvis, include one from July 29, 2019, in which Markley forwarded several screenshots of Facebook posts referring to Shoemaker’s claims; Markley noted “I am sending a copy of the Facebook post below, the page reference several issues that appear to be criminal. I do not know the owner of the page but I believe it is one of several that Lynn Shoemaker runs.”

It is unclear what NHCSO did with this information because, since the Frank investigation is still active, law enforcement cannot comment on it.

However, according to District Attorney Ben David’s description, the investigation into Frank did not begin into late December or early January, after a victim brought allegations to an employee of the District Attorney’s office.

Allegations of retaliation and intimidation, policy lapses

The DA along with Sheriff have requested an outside investigation into allegations against New Hanover County Schools administration. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)
The New Hanover County Schools administrators have been cited in several allegations of intimidation and retaliation. (Port City Daily photo / File)

Concerns about NHCS extended beyond headline arrests. There has also been a series of allegations against the administration for attempting to retaliate against or intimidate parents, students, and employees.

The district is currently named in multiple complaints containing allegations of retaliation filed with the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights. These include allegations that the administration retaliated against the student of a parent who had pointed out that the school’s service animal policy violated federal law. They also include multiple allegations that the administration retaliated against parent — and his daughter — after being challenged on its alleged failure to follow Title IX guidelines and a court injunction.

A similar story details what happened to a student who, after being sexually assaulted on a school bus, was forced to continue to ride that same bus to the same school as her assailant — before ultimately being sent to the district’s ‘behavioral adjustment’ school. The family now says they would have filed a Title IX complaint but didn’t at the time because there was virtually no information about federal law provided to parents or students. Deputy Superintendent Holliday — who was the district’s Title IX coordinator — apparently did very little to make sure the school’s website provided crucial information about how to file complaints.

While the Board of Education’s Title IX committee has begun to address these issues, the legacy of years of providing no information can clearly still be felt. Likewise, the district was unable to explain why its service animal policy contained material directly contradicting the Americans with Disabilities Act until just a few months ago. For years, NHCS has been one of just a few districts in the state that does utilize the North Carolina School Board Association (NCSBA) service for keeping policies updated — although Chairwoman Estep said late last year the Board is now weighing the cost and benefits of the service.

Superintendent Markley has also been personally accused of going outside of the school system to attempt to intimidate parents who have complained. In October 2019 the Board suspended Markley without pay after he attempted to intimidate and silence UNCW Professor Clyde Edgerton, a vocal critic of Markley’s handling of and alleged role in apparent racial discrimination in the Forest Hills Spanish Immersion program. (You can read more about those concerns here.) A current NHCS employe also alleged that the district retaliated against her when she tried to blow the whistle on inequitable practices, safety concerns, and other issues at Forest Hills — and then allegedly retaliated again after she went to the press. NHCS has denied these allegations.

The Board is currently deliberating a separate complaint against Markley for allegedly attempting to intimidate another parent.

These concerns even extend to how the administration dealt with the press.

In the course of reporting on complaints about Kelly dating back to 2003, Port City Daily asked NHCS for comment on the students’ allegation. NHCS offered an unusual quid-pro-quo: then-spokesperson Valita Quattlebaum said the district would be able to respond, but first requested contact information for the former students.

Port City Daily declined. [Editor’s note: it is against our editorial policy to give out source information without explicit permission.]

The following day, 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 in part because the district administration was then (and still is) under investigation. Port City Daily did offer to give Bullard’s contact information to the students if Bullard 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.

Because one of these students was actively being interviewed by the SBI as part of the investigation into NHCS, Port City Daily reported Bullard’s request to law enforcement out of an abundance of concern for potential witness tampering or intimidation.


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)

Taken individually, each one of these incidents and allegations provoked public concern. Taken together, it has prompted the question: is there something more deeply wrong with the culture of NHCS? And, if so, who is responsible?

During this week’s Board of Education press conference, Chairwoman Estep declined to say if the Board or she herself still had faith in the administration. Facing head-on questions about firing Superintendent Markley, Board members equivocated, hinting at frustration but declining to comment directly.

At the close of that conference, Board member Judy Justice said, “we are responsible, ultimately. We are the people who are elected by this community to run this school district. We may not have been involved when a lot of these things were going on, but immediately when we got in there we should have jumped in and grabbed the bull by the horns.”

Estep and other board members, though they have differed with Justice in the past, acknowledged the board has issues to address and “work to do” moving forward.

On Superbowl Sunday, the Board is holding a special session. On Tuesday, they will meet again in closed session, followed by a regular open meeting. Concerned residents are already signing up to speak. It remains to be seen what will come of their concerns.

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

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