Protected by law: Did school system’s inaction open door to teen’s rape?

Protected by law: Did school system's inaction open door to teen's rape?

NEW HANOVER COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Sending sexually suggestive texts to a student was not enough to get Nicholas Oates fired from New Hanover County Schools.

The former middle school special education assistant at Myrtle Grove Middle School was reinstated from an unpaid suspension in 2016 when sheriff's officials determined the texts about the size of his anatomy to a child did not break the law.

But weeks later, teachers started coming forward with claims that Oates was spreading rumors about having sexual relations with his colleagues. One teacher, speaking on background to WECT News, described witnessing Oates comment on another teacher's body to an 8th grade boy.

Oates faced a second suspension with multiple teachers offering their personal accounts to the principal of the school.

The second investigation may have led to the termination of Oates, but New Hanover County Schools didn't have the opportunity. Seven days into that second investigation, Oates resigned from the school system, effectively tying the hands of school officials from sounding the alarm about his behavior to future employers.

Months later, Oates took a short-lived position working in an after-school program with other New Hanover County School students as part of Communities in Schools of Cape Fear.

Now a year later, Oates sits in the New Hanover County Jail, accused of raping a child.

School system officials continue to claim state personnel law prevented them from sharing information about Oates' alleged behavior, allowing him to seek employment supervising children. But others disagree, with some saying New Hanover County Schools lack of action during two investigations of Oates directly led to the abuse of a child in our community.

Could the school system have done more?

Oates' first suspension began Dec. 2, 2016, the day after the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office initiated its investigation into text messages between him and a female student.

In addition to referencing the size of his genitals, Oates told the girl to leave her boyfriend and be with him, according to the mother of the boyfriend and confirmed by law enforcement.

While investigators ultimately determined no crime had been committed, NHCS' policy apparently prohibits that type of communication between employees and students. It states, in part:

All employees are prohibited from dating, courting or entering into a romantic or sexual relationship with any student enrolled in the school system regardless of the student's age. Consent is not a defense to this prohibition. Employees engaging in or attempting to engage in such inappropriate conduct shall be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal, and may be subject to criminal action as provided in NCGS §14-202.4 and NCGS §14-27.7.

Oates wasn't terminated. The school system reinstated Oates on Dec. 13, 2016. A little over a month later, Oates was again suspended without pay while the school system investigated the accusations made against him by his coworkers.

The school system has repeatedly denied releasing additional information or records surrounding Oates' resignation, citing the state's personnel law.

When asked about the general process of firing an employee, a NHCS spokesperson indicated the investigation into allegations of misconduct can be lengthy, and ultimately, they cannot prevent someone from quitting.

Only the Superintendent has the authority to terminate an employee (except for licensed employees who can only be terminated by the Board of Education). The typical procedure when there is an allegation against an employee is for the HR Division to investigate and make a recommendation to the Superintendent. Part of the investigation involves interviewing the employee and giving him/her the opportunity to respond to the allegation. The NHCS cannot prevent employees from quitting. If an employee quits before the investigation is complete, there is no further action the NHCS can take against the employee.

Problem with personnel law?

If a public employee is fired, the law allows for the creation of a public record in the form of a termination letter, which should at least generally describe "the specific acts or omissions that are the basis of the dismissal." This portion of the law was partially added because of school employees accused of wrongdoing, according to Jonathan Jones, director of the NC Open Government Coalition.

"The request to change the law in part came from school systems who were saying, 'well we have no way of finding out that this person was let go by another school system for having had an inappropriate relationship,'" Jones said. "And so that was part of the reason for the change, so that those other schools could have the ability to check into somebody's background when they were making that hire."

As currently written, however, the personnel law puts government agencies in a tight spot when an employee accused of wrongdoing resigns. The law only allows for the release of certain information such as dates of employment, and any demotions, suspensions, or transfers, among other things. Other information in an employee's personnel file is protected, and the unauthorized release of that information could lead to lawsuits.

But there is a mechanism in state law that allows school systems and other government entities to release information regarding an employee who has resigned if the integrity of its organization is at risk.

According to Jones, the school board would have to vote on the release of any records, and the superintendent would have to agree with the board should it decide the release is necessary for the public's trust.

"This sounds to me like one of those scenarios where maybe it would be good for them to consider that," Jones said. "To consider letting the public know what happened here and what they did here will rebuild some of that trust that's been lost."

When presented with this information, New Hanover County Schools Assistant Superintendent Dr. John Welmers would only say via email, “Due to personnel laws, we are unable to provide any additional information at this time.”

Since Oates resigned and the school system apparently did not take further action, potential future employers could only obtain a broad overview of his employment with NHCS.

Case in point, with little to no knowledge of the allegations against him, Communities in Schools of the Cape Fear hired Oates as a part-time after-school coordinator at its youth center, where he worked for less than two months. A spokesperson for CISCF declined to comment on Oates' brief employment, saying only that he passed a background check and a check of the national sex offender registry.

Months later, in the days after his arrest on child sex crimes, prosecutors revealed Oates had admitted during a controlled phone call with law enforcement to having sex with the alleged victim.

While Oates was not employed with CISCF during the alleged offenses, it is not clear if the victim is someone he met during his employment there.

With warning signs more than a year prior, some feel the school system could have done more to potentially prevent this from happening.

"They allowed him to resign in order to protect his ability to secure employment with another school system and seal his record from public scrutiny," former New Hanover County Board of Education member Tammy Covil wrote on her Facebook page following Oates' arrest. "Had they fired him, they would have had to disclose the fact that he was sexting a child. If NHCS had not swept this under the rug, the 14 year old he just raped may have been spared."

Teachers also discussed concerns that Oates may harm a child if left unchecked.

Current school board members refused to discuss Oates' arrest when contacted. Oates also declined multiple requests for an interview.

Note: Since our interview with Jones, he has left the NC Open Government Coalition.

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