NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) – Attempts by lawyers for New Hanover County Schools to have some of the plaintiffs removed from a lawsuit have proven unsuccessful so far. On Wednesday, Judge Phyllis Gorham ruled that all the former students currently suing the school system for sexual abuse they allegedly suffered at the hands of former Teacher of the Year Mike Kelly may remain a party to the suit for now.
Kelly was arrested in 2018, after a parent found inappropriate pictures her son had been exchanging with Kelly on his cell phone. After the news broke, many more students came forward to say that they too had been abused by Kelly. The earliest reported abuse happened more than 20 years ago. Despite complaints filed by parents and students, Kelly remained in the classroom. Following Kelly’s arrest, school officials initially denied receiving any previous complaints about him.
School board attorneys had claimed that many of the former students had failed to file suit before the statute of limitations expired, and they should be removed from the lawsuit. But Judge Gorham ruled that the school system’s failure to disclose that Kelly had previously been investigated for claims of sexual misconduct effectively stalled the clock from starting on the statute of limitations until 2019.
It was in 2019, during the hearing when Kelly pleaded guilty to nearly 60 sex crimes against former students, that Prosecutor Connie Jordan said in open court Kelly admitted to law enforcement he’d previously been investigated for sexual misconduct and cleared by the school system.
As part of her ruling, Judge Gorham is also allowing former NHCS Superintendent Tim Markley to be removed as a named defendant in the case. She ruled that any negligence he may be guilty of is essentially duplicative of the board’s negligence. His name will remain in the body of the lawsuit, but the board will be liable for anything he did or did not do in his capacity as Superintendent.
Former Deputy Superintendent Rick Holliday, who previously served as Principal of Laney High School and Kelly’s direct supervisor, had also attempted to be removed from the lawsuit as a named defendant, but Judge Gorham denied that motion.
The school board’s attorneys argued Kelly was acting in his individual capacity when he abused students, and the school district should not be held liable because he was acting outside the scope of his employment. Judge Gorham dismissed that claim, siding with plaintiffs that the schools were indeed responsible for student safety.
Judge Gorham has requested that a three-judge panel in Raleigh review some individual claims regarding the SAFE Child Act, to determine if a statute of limitations window extended by the General Assembly is constitutional. Since that ruling could take some time, it is likely the trial date for this lawsuit, which is currently slated for September, will be pushed back.
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