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Friday, May 17, 2024

A New Hanover student assaulted, teachers silenced, and a family without answers

Six years ago, a young student was sexually assaulted by a fellow student at Bradley Creek Elementary School. The parents still have painful questions. (Port City Daily photo / Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — Something happened to the son of a New Hanover County School employee in the bathroom at Bradley Creek Elementary School that left him traumatized. For the last six years, the child’s family fought to find out details but have been stonewalled by the school district and received little information from law enforcement.

The parents originally were told by the school principal that what transpired was “just a touch,” but they would learn, bit by bit, it had been something worse. According to the family, that was just the beginning of the struggle to figure out what happened to their son, who experienced profound PTSD symptoms in the wake of the incident and showed anxiety around the date of the assault for years to come.

Despite learning some of the details of the incident from former teachers and other sources, the parents still feel kept in the dark. They believe that was initially because then-Principal Jayne Kiker, the daughter of long-time board of education member Jannette Nichols, wanted to keep the incident quiet; later, the family said they felt the district, including then-Assistant Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday, wanted to prevent news of the assault from spreading. According to the parents, Holliday went so far as to suggest the mother’s persistence could impact her employment with the district.

Teachers at Bradley Creek also said they felt pressure to stay quiet, both immediately after the incident and in weeks to come.

NHCS declined to comment on this story, citing personnel and student confidentiality. Unlike some previous incidents, NHCS did not object to reaching out to the school-level administrator — Principal Kiker — for comment, but Kiker did not respond to several emails.

[Note: While both parents of the victim discussed their experiences, the father, Kerry Bernard, agreed to speak on the record on behalf of his wife, a NHCS employee who expressed concerns about her son being identified. Two former Bradley Creek teachers also agreed to discuss the incident but asked that their names not be used for fear of retaliation. Emails acquired by Port City Daily confirmed the teachers were employed at Bradley Creek at the time and support their story.]

The day of the assault

On Thursday, March 13, 2014, Kerry Bernard’s second-grade son went into the bathroom. Another second-grader followed him inside. According to Bernard, his wife, and two teachers who taught at Bradley Creek at the time, the student had an Individual Education Plan (IEP) that required supervision and should have prevented him from being alone with another student.

Something went wrong.

A former Bradley Creek teacher said that, following the assault, the victim did his best to explain what had happened, describing the perpetrator’s attempt to sexually assault him.

The school called the student’s parents and notified student resource officers (SRO) from the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office. Then, roughly 90 minutes later, they finally contacted the victim’s mother.

“She was the last to know,” Bernard said. “They called everybody else. Then they called her.”

According to Bernard, Kiker called over to the school where his wife worked and told her something had happened, but wouldn’t elaborate. When the parents arrived at Bradley Creek, Kiker “did all the talking,” and didn’t let the SROs speak, according to Bernard. Kiker repeatedly told the family it was “only a touch,” according to the parents.

No one took a statement from the victim.

Bernard said when his wife arrived, the perpetrator was “playing at a table,” leading him and his wife to believe Kiker “already had her story ready by the time she called.”

The teacher who had spoken to the victim said she was asked by Kiker to stay in a closed room and was not allowed to speak to the parents or law enforcement.

Bernard also said he and his wife were told by Kiker that the two SROs who were on the scene couldn’t initiate a criminal complaint, and that “all of the detectives were in a meeting.”

Bernard’s wife said she asked if her son should be seen by a clinician for a medical examination and interview, but was told the school would schedule it the following week. The upsetting but obvious concern — that bathing her son in the intervening three or more days would remove evidence — was not considered, according to the family.

Bernard and his wife said Kiker told them the school was concerned about the perpetrator, who had allegedly himself experienced abuse at home, and “needed help.” Bernard said he and his wife didn’t disagree, but felt their son — the victim — wasn’t getting help.

‘On our watch’

The assault happened on Thursday, but two former teachers from Bradley Creek Elementary said Principal Kiker was not in a rush to act. Both teachers said Bradley Creek staff was aware the perpetrator had an IEP, which should have prevented the incident, but didn’t because it wasn’t followed. Their version of events is supported by emails acquired by Port City Daily.

On Saturday, Bradley Creek teachers and staff started emailing each other, expressing the need to delve more deeply into what happened.

A Bradley Creek employee emailed fellow colleagues, writing about the “need to reflect on what we should have done differently to protect the rights of our students,” and saying “[w]e need to meet as a team to discuss how we can be accountable for the services we provide, so that this tragic event doesn’t occur on our watch again.”

Another employee, who CC’d Kiker, responded she still had “many questions that need [to be] answered,” and stated, “nor did we protect [the student].”

On Sunday morning, the school’s special education liaison forwarded the exchange to Julie Askew, NHCS’s executive director of special education and related services.

“We need to discuss the situation as soon as we can not sure if you are aware [t]hat a student sexually assaulted another student in the bathroom at Bradley Creek,” she wrote.

Several employees concurred they wanted to meet first thing Monday morning — but Kiker disagreed. Kiker also expressed frustration because the “chain of command” had not been followed, perhaps alluding to an employee going over her head to Askew, who worked in central administration. Kiker said she was “a bit concerned” there was now inaccurate information on the public record (because employees had contacted each other using their district emails); it is not clear what inaccuracies Kiker was referring to.

‘Leave it alone’

Early the next week, Bernard’s son was seen at the Carousel Center where he was interviewed by a New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office (NHCSO) deputy on camera, after the family signed a form giving permission. Bernard’s wife was told the recording and any other evidence would be used for court — which is how the family learned there was a criminal proceeding. Bernard’s wife said she was under the impression she would get to see the recording, hoping it might give her some insight into what had happened to her child.

But the recording was never shown to her, and it was the family’s understanding it became the property of the school or NHCSO. (The district later confirmed it was not the custodian of such recordings, in general.)

It’s important to note the Carousel Center does provide wrap-around services for parents, explaining the interview process and what becomes of any recording or documents from those interviews. These services include follow-up sessions.

For Bernard and his wife, emotions ran high — anger, anguish, and frustration. Bernard said he and his wife had lost faith that the “powers that be” were going to give them any answers. Bernard’s wife said she called Dr. Rick Holliday, who was then assistant superintendent.

According to Bernard and his wife, Dr. Holliday told her to leave the issue alone.

“He told her, ‘You need to let us do our job. We do this stuff every day, and we know what we’re doing. Let the professionals do it,'” Bernard said. “And he told me, ‘You know, this could affect your job.”

Bernard and his wife said it was clear to the family that this was a threat.

Two Bradley Creek teachers also said they felt pressure to keep quiet. The first, who was asked to stay in the room and kept from speaking with the parents or law enforcement on the day of the assault, said she felt it was a message to stay quiet.

The second teacher, who described herself as being more vocal, said she was more directly pressured. A veteran employee, she said she was usually reviewed once a year. Following the assault, she was reviewed three times in one day. She was also threatened with relocation from her position, despite having spent considerable time obtaining a specialized degree.

Less than three months later, Kiker was moved to Holly Shelter Middle School as part of a district-wide shuffling of administrators. According to records provided by the district, Kiker has never been demoted or suspended.

(Port City Daily photo / Mark Darrough)

Few answers

In the week after the assault, Bernard said the family was told more than once by Kiker and others that her son “was young, he’ll bounce back, he can get therapy.” But while tacitly acknowledging that something had happened, the family never got any specifics on the assault itself — or who was responsible for the apparent lapse that allowed it to happen.

The student who assaulted her son was moved from the school and is now in a facility, the family later learned. The family said they were able to determine that a juvenile criminal case had been opened against the perpetrator, but learned very little else from law enforcement. To date, the family has not learned anything else about the case, and has not been notified or invited to any hearing.

[Editor’s note: After being contacted by Port City Daily about the story, NHCSO offered to reach out to the family to discuss the issue; however, according to the victim’s mother, there was little information the Sheriff’s Office could share because the case involved juveniles, and most records were sealed.]

The recording made at the Carousel Center remains sealed in the investigation file, Bernard and his wife were told. According to the family, they were told that she would need to get a lawyer if she wanted to try and get that information released. The parents expressed frustration that such an important record wouldn’t be readily and freely available to the family.

While the family said they were frustrated with the lack of information from the Carousel Center and NHCSO, they were more upset at the district. For years, the family said they tried to get information from both Bradley Creek and central administration, without any success.

Years passed, and Bernard and his wife kept asking questions. After the recent shakeups in the NHCS administration, the family was more optimistic that they might make some progress. Bernard’s wife had also learned the technical term for the documentation she was seeking — the ‘Module 3’ file for her son — is supposed to be kept on the premises of the school and should have included more information about the assault and how it was handled.

Recently, Benard’s wife had several conversations with Assistant Superintendent Julie Varnam, who is in charge of student services. According to the family, Varnam said she felt they were entitled to more information. Ultimately, however, they said Varnam wasn’t able to provide anything.

A cover up?

Bernard said he felt like the district’s reaction was to “cover the incident up and keep it quiet.” He pointed to Kiker’s efforts to downplay the assault and her lack of urgency to meet with staff about the issue, the failure to interview or medically examine his son on the day of the assault, and pressure on his family and Bradley Creek staff to leave the issue alone as parts of that effort.

While some parts of the incident — especially aspects of a criminal investigation involving a juvenile — were bound to remain confidential, Bernard and his wife said they feel the overall lack of information has kept the district from being held responsible.

In particular, the Module 3 file, which would have given the family some answers, appears to be missing. NHCS declined to answer any questions about the assault or what happened afterward, including what became of the file.

Bernard’s wife said she believes it’s been destroyed.

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

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