NEW HANOVER COUNTY — When award-winning filmmaker Kerry David talks to people about the documentary she’s capturing in North Carolina, she speaks of the corruption, the collusion, the cover-up, the racism, and the sexual, emotional and physical abuse of children.
She acknowledges none of those terms are typically associated with a school district. Yet, the project she is chronicling concentrates on New Hanover County Schools.
Tentatively titled “Open Secret,” David is in the process of compiling 20 months’ worth of footage, interviews, and uncovered information into a documentary. The film will tell the story of the past year-and-a-half as the district dodged accountability for allegations of decades-long sexual abuse cover-up, leading the State Bureau of Investigation to launch a case looking into whether the law was violated.
Captured in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement in a city with a deeply racist history, the documentary will also touch on inequity and discrimination within the school system.
Until recently, “Open Secret” has remained a secret itself. The project was largely kept under wraps.
Last week, though, David was copied on an email with more than 80 people to a prosecutor with the Department of Justice, inquiring about when SBI’s investigation into NHCS would be complete.
“I decided, since I had been on that chain, I would write for myself and let her know that I have been documenting this situation for the past 20 months,” David said. “And I too would like to know when the SBI investigation would be complete.”
Days later, David still hadn’t heard back. Several people attached to the email chain reached out to her, asking to share their accounts on camera. She has now begun filming again and will conduct several more interviews this week and next.
As David edits, she is attempting to cut more footage than she can fit into 90 minutes.
“It’s proving impossible,” she said, adding that she thinks one film may be a disservice.
She plans to start making calls to friends in Hollywood to pursue a series.
Who is Kerry David
David has worked in the entertainment industry for 25 years, working on the popular Agent Cody Banks franchise and assisting Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in productions.
“Open Secret” is her third documentary. In recent years she released “Breaking Their Silence: Women on the Frontline of the Poaching War” and “Bill Coors: The Will to Live.”
After wrapping back-to-back projects in Los Angeles, friends who had relocated to North Carolina persuaded David to move to the East Coast around 2019. That’s when David met her landlord, who told her about the problems NHCS was facing. David was skeptical of what she was hearing.
“I thought, ‘No, that doesn’t happen in this day and age,’” David said. “That’s, that’s impossible.”
David’s landlord connected her to a few active members of the community who caught her up on the issues in the district. Based on those conversations, she chose to start rolling and “see where it goes.”
Still, she was hesitant about whether she was the right person to tell the story of New Hanover County Schools, especially as a newcomer to the area. But a friend of David’s convinced her.
“She said, ‘Well, who better to tell this story? You’re completely unbiased. You don’t have a dog in this fight. You love children. You’re just trying to get to the bottom of this,’” David recalled, “and hopefully you’ll find out it’s a massive misunderstanding.’”
In the beginning, David was looking into the alleged racial discrimination in Forest Hills Elementary’s Spanish Immersion program. The district was accused of favoring white kids with the program’s “first-come, first-serve” policy. Percentages showed the program was majority white, but the district denied any wrongdoings and the principal resigned in 2016.
David dug deeper and connected the Wilmington coup of 1898 to present times. In an on-camera interview ahead of the 2020 election with David Zucchino, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Wilmington’s Lie,” he described how the socioeconomics and political climate leading up to the massacre was almost a mirroring image of today.
By early 2020, administrators were dropping from the central services office following the announcement of the SBI investigation. David connected with survivors of sexual assault, social activists and legal professionals. She kept her crew small and intimate to allow people more comfort while opening up.
“It was a mountain of information coming at us,” David said. “Our job was to sort it out, to make something make sense of it when we couldn’t make sense of it ourselves.”
Weaving it together
In June 2019, when former Isaac Bear teacher Michael Earl Kelly pled guilty to repeat sex crimes involving students in court, he admitted the school mounted an investigation after he exposed himself to a student, 12 years before his arrest. He was cleared.
From what she’s learned, David said it felt as if everyone who was best positioned to stand up for the children “abandoned their posts,” even the school board members at the time.
David said she knows of “over 100 victims, probably over 200.” The ones she has interviewed are the ones she feels tell the most compelling stories with enough evidence to back their claims.
“There should have been a lawsuit filed and there wasn’t,” David said.
She learned of one 7-year-old child in the school district who was allegedly raped. Nobody was fired in the case. She has stories on camera about two teachers who have yet to be arrested.
“That becomes a ‘he said, she said,’ if it’s not investigated,” David said.
The film doesn’t focus entirely on pedophilia in NHCS. She weaves in subjects of race and discrimination because the students affected by sexual misconduct who David interviewed all have that common denominator: They are either people of color and/or come from low socioeconomic backgrounds and can’t afford representation.
David believes they were targeted for those reasons.
“I think that I’m sort of their last beacon of hope, in that, if nothing else, their stories will be acknowledged and they won’t be brushed aside,” David said.
More events unraveled nationally while filming that brought racial disparities to the forefront of the film: George Floyd. Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery. The Black Lives Matter movement, fueled by their deaths, could not be ignored.
“As a filmmaker telling the story, I had no choice but to bring that into the film because it was happening at the same time,” David said.
Making waves in 2021
David is aiming for a 2021 release date.
Once complete, she wants to screen the film in Wilmington to show viewers the faces of those citizens who stood up for the students subjected to sexual abuse and display the importance of the local elections to vote out the “bad actors.”
Although events are still unfolding and questions are still unanswered, David said she has an idea of how she will end the film – and she’s not waiting around for an SBI conclusion.
If there isn’t an outcome of the investigation by the time of release, she plans to make clear in the documentary how long the SBI investigation is taking.
“The audience will see what I’ve shown in 20 months and make their own estimation,” David said. “It’s very confusing why it’s taking the SBI so long to make a determination about something that we made a determination about in six months . . . But we’ll see whether things are going to change or if it’s going to be more of the same.”
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