Tuesday, July 23, 2024

While previous issues were turned over to SBI, New Hanover Sheriff’s Office still investigating school cases

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)
State and local authorities are handling different allegations against the New Hanover County School district. (Port City Daily photo/Johanna Ferebee)

WILMINGTON — In the confusion and outrage following the latest in a series of arrests of school employees, it’s occasionally been unclear whether state or local authorities are investigating various parts of New Hanover County Schools’ systemic problem.

This week, the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) confirmed it was still handling the investigation of Peter Michael Frank, 47, who was arrested last month on a dozen felony charges, many involving students at Roland Grise Middle School, where Frank was employed. NHCSO will also still be the lead agency on any further investigations into school employees.

Prosecution of Frank has been handed over to a special prosecutor in the North Carolina Attorney General’s office; this move was initiated by District Attorney Ben David because the complaint that started the NHCSO investigation into Frank was made to an employee in David’s office.

While this is the same prosecutor handling the “failure to report” claims against the New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) district administration, it was not handed over for the same reason.

What the state is handling

The state AG’s office and the North Carolina Bureau of Investigation (SBI) are handling the failure to report charges against the administration.

In the early summer of 2019, a concerned community group filed a complaint with NHCSO that top administrators, including Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley and former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday, had failed to report evidence of sexual abuse by former teachers Michael Earl Kelly and Nicholas Lavon Oates.

Those allegations took on new weight when Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan revealed Kelly had told law enforcement that NHCS had investigated and cleared him of sexual misconduct allegations without ever contacting law enforcement — a violation of state law.

A week later, David confirmed a new, separate investigation had been launched into the district’s alleged failure to report and obstruction of justice. Almost immediately, David and Sheriff Ed McMahon jointly requested that this investigation and any associated prosecution be moved to the SBI and AG’s office.

Currently, the SBI is still investigating the administration; the case includes potential failure to report an obstruction of justice in both the Kelly and Oates cases. The AG’s office is handling any prosecution in those cases. It does not appear the AG’s office is currently investigating failure to report charges in the Frank case, although it is handling the felony sex charges against him. In essence, the Frank case and the failure to report case were both handed off from the local to the state level, but for different reasons.

David’s office confirmed that while these cases have been handed over to the AG’s office, they will still be tried in New Hanover County.

What local authorities are handling

NHCSO confirmed that, while everything relating to the failure to report and obstruction of justice investigations had been turned over to the SBI, the Sheriff’s Office would continue to handle the Frank case and any other school-related issues locally.

This will include any additional charges against Frank, something David suggested was possible during Frank’s court appearance last week.

It would also include a broad investigation of the school system, recently proposed by New Hanover County Commissioners, who unanimously approved a resolution to send county resources into the school system; however, because the schools are functionally separate from the county, NHCSO, the Department of Social Services, and other county employees cannot be widely dispatched into the schools without Board of Education approval.

While the Board of Education released a statement this week saying it looked forward to working with the county, it has apparently not yet formally accepted or approved the county’s offer.

If the school board accepts, NHCSO would handle the investigation of any school employee suspected of misconduct. Asked if NHCSO or Sheriff McMahon had any concerns similar to those that led to handing the failure to report cases over to the SBI, a spokesman said no. David had no comment on whether or not there were any concerns about NHCSO handling these investigations.

It’s worth noting that, while many NHCS schools are inside Wilmington city limits, and the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) does provide some school resource officers, NHCSO has jurisdiction over incidents that happen in all schools. According to Interim WPD Chief Donnie Williams, this is essentially the same organizational structure as other joint WPD-NHCSO taskforces, like the WPD-led downtown or anti-gang taskforces, except that NHCSO takes the lead and handles investigations on school issues.

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

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