NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - New Hanover County Schools officials were alerted to the potential for inappropriate behavior in a classroom by science teacher Mike Kelly nearly 15 years ago, according to a document provided to WECT News recently.
Kelly was arrested earlier this month and charged with third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor and three counts of indecent liberties with a student as a teacher at Isaac Bear Early College High School. At the time, school officials indicated this was the first complaint to human resources in Kelly's more than 25-year career.
However, the document, a formal complaint provided by the parent who filed it, accuses Kelly of "language of inappropriate sexual content." The parent also tells us she alerted school officials at the time that Kelly was showing pornography to students in the classroom.
WECT has been investigating the claims, and in the process spoke to two former students who corroborated the accusations leveled in the parent's complaint.
After alerting NHCS officials that we'd uncovered a complaint filed against Kelly in 2003, administrators explained they don't have any personnel complaints filed prior to the 2004-05 school year due to turnover in the central office and changes in the way complaints were handled.
2003 complaints to the school
Caroline Kuebler says her son and at least one other student told her stories about Kelly's inappropriate behavior. The behavior ranged from telling off-color sex jokes in class to showing pornographic images to students. We verified these claims with the former students, who say Kelly never touched them but definitely crossed the line of appropriate behavior between teacher and student.
Kuebler says she went to Kelly directly to express her concerns in 2003, and when that didn't help, she went to then-Laney principal, Dr. Rick Holliday.
Kuebler thinks she spoke to both men three separate times before realizing she was getting nowhere. Making matters worse, she says Kelly retaliated, and docked her son's grade in his class. That's when she escalated her concerns with a formal written complaint to New Hanover County Schools administrators at the central office.
She saved a copy of that complaint she filed 15 years ago. The official "Parent/public concerns about School Personnel" document is dated Spring 2003, addressed to the executive director of instructional services.
"What went on in the classroom setting…is unfair and unthinkable of a teacher's behavior in a High School classroom," Kuebler wrote. "[I]n the case of Mr. Kelly, no student should be forced to encounter, or, put up with intimidation and/or any language of inappropriate sexual context. Not even jokes! These are high school students. There is apparently only one teacher for this course at Laney and the students have no avenue to tell or talk about what has gone on without risking Mr. Kelly's retaliation…."
"I would like to request an investigation to assess what has taken place at Laney and a meeting with the Superintendent," Kuebler wrote to conclude her four-page complaint. She says she never even received a response.
New Hanover County Schools administrators "do not recall" complaints
Mike Kelly transferred from Laney to Isaac Bear in 2006. The day after Kelly's Feb. 6, 2018, arrest on child pornography and molestation charges against a current student at Issac Bear, New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) announced Kelly had been suspended with pay from his position at Isaac Bear.
Later that day, after prosecutors announced Kelly had admitted to one of the crimes, NHCS announced it had initiated the process of firing him, and suspended his pay.
The following day, NHCS released more details about Kelly's history with the school system. He was initially hired as a Laney High School science teacher in 1992.
"In reference to Michael Kelly, there were no dismissal, suspension, or demotion for disciplinary reasons until this recent incident," NHCS spokeswoman Valita Quattlebaum wrote in an email to WECT on Feb. 8. "No complaints received in the Division of Human Resources prior to this recent incident."
Once WECT was made aware that a complaint had been filed against Kelly in 2003, we reached out to Holliday for an explanation. He was the principal at Laney in 2003, and now serves as deputy superintendent of the county school system.
"Nothing like that ever happened. I can assure you that if I was aware that Mr. Kelly had pornography on his computer, it would have been dealt with, and if the school district had known, it would have been dealt with," Holliday said.
Holliday did write Kuebler a letter in August 2003. She kept a copy. While it does not mention the sexual allegations, it does say he'd reviewed her son's grade in Kelly's chemistry class, and thought that "Mr. Kelly was more than fair in his grading…." He declined to adjust the grade.
If nothing else, the letter corroborates there was some discussion between Kuebler and Holliday about Kelly's class in Spring 2003.
We asked Holliday if he could have simply forgotten about the concerns Kuebler insists she brought to his attention. Holliday said that if it had happened, he would have remembered, and it didn't happen.
Changes to process for handling personnel complaints
We also reached out to NHCS to find out why it has no record of the formal complaint Kuebler filed in Spring 2003. NHCS said it only has personnel complaints dating back to the 2004-05 school year.
"None of the current administrators were in central office before that time," Quattlebaum explained. "There was a change in the process, but we cannot state with certainty the exact changes or the dates they occurred."
Holliday, who transferred to central office in 2004, told us that to his knowledge, unvalidated complaints were not placed in employees' personnel files during the time frame in question. We asked if NHCS at least kept a record of unvalidated complaints back then in the event that future complaints about an employee indicated a pattern of behavior they were previously unable to prove. He said he doubted it.
New Hanover County Schools tells us that under the current administration, all personnel complaints are reviewed by the superintendent, who then initiates an investigation. State law gives superintendents the discretion to keep a complaint out of an employee's personnel file if it is found to be without merit. But under the updated procedure, NHCS does keep a record of the complaint.
We asked NHCS for an interview.
"Due to the ongoing investigation and sensitivity of the case with Mr. Kelly, the district does not wish to go on camera to discuss this matter," Quattlebaum said in a written statement on Monday.
While Kelly has only been charged with sex crimes related to one student, in crimes that allegedly happened on school property over the last six months, the prosecutor mentioned in open court that five minor children who are current students at Isaac Bear were also involved in the investigation, and more charges were likely.
For her part, Kuebler tried everything she could think of to stop this issue before it got worse, even going as far as calling the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office in 2003. She says there is no record of the phone call, but the officer who answered also dismissed her concerns, saying they were unsure what they would even arrest Kelly for if he was showing porn to students.
We've reached out to Miriam Thompson, the attorney Kelly hired to represent him on the recent charges, to see if she could comment on the 2003 allegations that have resurfaced. We are awaiting a return phone call.