WECT Investigates: Weak background check system for NC teachers

NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - Are your kids safe when you send them to school?

It's a question a lot of parents have been asking after a New Hanover County high school teacher was recently arrested for sex crimes against students. Just as concerning, many of the alleged crimes happened on school property and had been happening for 15 years before the teacher was arrested.

With 18 victims and counting in the criminal case against Mike Kelly, the WECT Investigates team looked into what local schools are doing to screen educators before they are hired, and what they do to police teachers once they are in the classroom.

“Patchwork” system for screening teachers

While you might assume teachers go through rigorous background checks before they are left in charge of your children, that's not necessarily the case.

A nationwide analysis by USA Today in 2016 gave North Carolina an "F" for its tracking system for troubled teachers. We were one of a dozen states to make a failing grade, specifically losing points for a weak background check system, where screening was left up to local school districts.

Additionally, the paper found that North Carolina did a poor job sharing misconduct information about teachers with other states.

"I think people would be surprised to know that we don't have a statewide, uniform way of screening potential educators," said Drew Elliot, a spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

Elliot said the State Board of Education has been trying to implement tougher screening procedures, but so far, lawmakers have failed to pass legislation needed to make that a reality.

"Right now in state law, it is the responsibility of the local boards of education to have a policy about background checks, not just for educators but for any school-based employee. So we've got a patchwork of how they do that, who gets those background checks, and it varies statewide," Elliot added. "What we'd like to see is a standardized process, including fingerprinting, for these people who are going to be with some of the most vulnerable in our community, for long periods of time. And almost all educators are very professional and would never dream of doing anything, but we've got to look out for the ones who do."

Other troubled teachers

The scope of the crimes Mike Kelly is accused of is particularly egregious, but he's not only local teacher to run into serious trouble over the years. WECT Investigates found more than two dozen teachers from our five-county viewing have surrendered their licenses or had them revoked for inappropriate behavior.

Michael Supak was one of them. The 37-year-old Hoggard High School football coach was arrested in 2012 accused of taking indecent liberties with a student. Two years later, his teaching license was revoked after he was convicted of a lesser charge.

North Brunswick High School Band Director Mark Riel pleaded guilty to sending sexually explicit text messages to a student in 2011. The 38-year-old had his teaching license revoked the following year.

The case involving Brunswick County teacher Leah Shipman made national headlines.

In 2009, 39-year-old Shipman was charged with statutory rape of a 15-year-old student. Prosecutors dropped the charges against her when she married the student in 2011. He was still a minor, but got parental consent to wed his former teacher.

The criminal case fell apart because, under North Carolina law, a husband does not have to testify against his wife.

Pender County teacher Glenn McIntyre had his license revoked in 2009 for accessing pornography on a school computer.

Whiteville City Schools teacher Chance Bryant had his license revoked in 2011 for inappropriate behavior with students.

There is no record of a teacher in Bladen County ever having their license revoked.

Some of the other offenses are less clear. Pender County teacher William Heath had his license revoked in 2017 for "unprofessional behavior in the classroom;" and Columbus County teacher Nathanial McCoy voluntarily surrendered his license in 2018 after it was discovered he'd falsified documents when applying for a teaching license.

Honor System

Prospective teachers apply for a teaching license through the Department of Public Instruction in Raleigh. But the current system relies largely on the honor system for detecting convicted criminals at the licensing stage. The teaching license application asks would-be employees if they have ever been charged with a crime.

"It does require somebody, with our current system, to tell the truth. Or someone to bring it to our attention, whether it be the district or local law enforcement or someone else, that this person has been charged with a crime or convicted of a crime, that would constitute lying on an application, and then we would be able to take action," Elliot explained.

Local screening procedures

New Hanover, Brunswick, Pender, and Whiteville City Schools all use the Background Investigative Bureau (BIB) to screen prospective employees. The Huntersville, NC based company provides comprehensive criminal background checks using local, state, and national criminal databases. But none of those school districts require employees to have a fingerprint background check, which is more likely to detect someone using an alias to escape a criminal past.

Bladen County Schools do require a fingerprint background check. They search employees' local and state criminal history, but do not screen for federal criminal history.

Columbus County Schools uses a company called Screening One based out of Tampa, FL, to conduct background checks. Local, state, and federal criminal databases are checked as part of that search, but employees are not required to submit fingerprints.

Interestingly, while North Carolina does not require fingerprinting for public school employees, daycare workers in facilities receiving state or federal funding must be fingerprinted to work with children.

The State Bureau of Investigation processes fingerprints for daycare workers who have lived in North Carolina for the last five years. If the prospective employee has lived out of state during the last five years, an FBI fingerprint check is required.

Legislative push for tighter screening

In an April 2017 letter to State and House Education Chairs, State Board of Education Chairman William Cobey asked for legislative help to improve student safety.

"Legislation requiring fingerprint criminal background checks is a critical component to ensuring that our children have a safe and supportive learning environment," Cobey wrote to lawmakers. "The Board, unlike most professional and occupational licensing boards in North Carolina, does not currently have the statutory authority to conduct fingerprint background checks."

Cobey said fingerprinting would enhance the screening process prior to a teacher obtaining their teacher license, and was the best way to get reliable and comprehensive criminal history information.

In 2016, State Senators including Sen. Michael Lee of Wilmington sponsored a bill called "Protect Students in Schools," which would have required enhanced background checks for teachers, including fingerprinting. Senate Bill 867 passed the Senate but died in the house.

The following year, House Bill 117 was introduced by several State Representatives including New Hanover County Republican Holly Grange and Brunswick County Republican Frank Iler.

The bill had similar wording to Senate Bill 867 and would have required teachers to have fingerprint background checks, but that bill died before making it to a vote before the full house.

WECT spoke to Rep. Craig Horn, a Union County Republican who was one of House Bill 117's primary sponsors.

"Today, unfortunately, we've got to be even more vigilant than in the past. The safety of kids is at risk and we need to double down," Rep. Horn explained of the need for tougher legislation. "Background checks, fingerprints, as far as I'm concerned they ought to be standard operating procedure for anyone who works with kids."

Horn said he did not know of any specific opposition to tougher background checks for teachers that prevented HB 117 from advancing into law, although he does remember a general discussion about teacher privacy concerns.

He feels the need for student safety outweighs the need for privacy, and hopes they can add the fingerprint background check requirement into other student safety legislation being considered during the short session.

Policing teachers with no criminal history

In the case of Michael Kelly, he had no criminal history that we are aware of prior to his February 2018 arrest. The day after his arrest, New Hanover County Schools released a statement indicating that no complaints had been filed against Kelly in his 25+ years with the school system. A parent quickly contacted us to refute that claim.

Caroline Kuebler said she filed a formal, written complaint against Kelly 15 years ago with New Hanover County Schools, after complaining in person at the school level and getting nowhere.

Kuebler says another parent informed her in 2003 that Kelly had been showing pornography in class at Laney High School, and had been telling sexually inappropriate jokes to students. She says when she asked her own child about this at the time, he confirmed the claims about Kelly.

Kuebler said after she voiced her complaints directly to Kelly and then-Laney Principal Rick Holliday about Kelly's alleged behavior, Kelly retaliated by docking her child's grade in science class.

Holliday says he has no memory of Kuebler's complaints. After we showed Central Office a copy of the complaint Kuebler filed in January 2004, they said they changed their system for tracking personnel complaints that year and have no record of her complaint.

Kuebler says she was heartbroken to learn of Kelly's arrest and the dozens of crimes he allegedly committed against students since she tried to raise a red flag in 2003. She says the school system's lack of accountability is troubling.

"They don't have my complaint? How many other complaints were made? There could have been hundreds of complaints made. And we would never know," Kuebler lamented.

She said she's lost faith in the leaders of our local school system, especially after hearing that Holliday does not remember the complaints she made about Kelly years ago. Holliday now serves as Deputy Superintendent of New Hanover County Schools.

"I think he may want to rethink that. And if he stands by [not remembering my complaints], really I'm worried for kids in this school system," Kuebler said.

A former student, unrelated to Kuebler, also told WECT Holliday was aware Kelly had pornography in the classroom in 2003. Kuebler said she doesn't understand the motive for protecting Kelly after she raised concerns.

"That's what we have to ask. What was in it for the people who covered this up?" Kuebler questioned.

North Carolina public schools pay to be alerted if a teacher here is arrested for a crime.

"We are flagged when someone who is an educator in a North Carolina school has a conviction or has something else disqualifying that is loaded into the system," Elliot explained of their membership in a national database that tracks teachers charged or convicted with crimes. "But it's not a foolproof system, because it's only as good as the information that's put into that database."

Elliot explained that if a local law enforcement agency failed to upload an arrest into this national database, North Carolina school administrators might not find out about a crime committed after the teacher was hired.

Superintendent declines an interview request

New Hanover County Schools Superintendent Tim Markley declined our request for an interview about Kuebler's concerns, and what the schools are doing to protect students. Markley did, however, provide a detailed written response, assuring us NHCS is a safe place for students to attend school.

"There are and have been for many years procedures in place for students and parents to make complaints about the alleged behavior of teachers. Such complaints are taken seriously and investigated. If complaints are substantiated, appropriate action is taken against the teacher, which can range from a verbal reprimand to termination and referral to law enforcement…." Markley wrote.

Even though Kuebler specifically mentioned Kelly's "unthinkable…behavior in a high school classroom," and wrote about "language of an inappropriate sexual context" in her 2003 complaint, before requesting an investigation and a meeting with the superintendent, Markley dismissed the significance of her complaint.

"Even if Mr. Kelly had told an improper joke in class in 2003 and it had been reported then, it most likely would not have resulted in Mr. Kelly being terminated. More likely he would have been reprimanded. Therefore, whether Ms. Kuebler did or did not file her alleged complaint in 2004 is really not relevant to a discussion of the safety of students in NHCS in 2018."

But for reasons unclear, Kelly was not even reprimanded based on what we have been told by NHCS.

Also noteworthy, the first of the 18 victims Kelly is charged now with sex crimes against was a 2003 student of his, the very same year Kuebler first reported concerns about Kelly's behavior to Laney administrators.

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