WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Law enforcement have been investigating claims raised by a former teacher now convicted of sex crimes against students that New Hanover County school administrators knew about claims he’d been sexually inappropriate with his students, and failed to report the allegations. That fact came to light during Mike Kelly’s plea hearing on Tuesday, sending shock waves through the courtroom and the community.
Kelly, a former Teacher of the Year who taught science at Laney High School and Isaac Bear Early College High School, will spend at least 17 years in prison after pleading guilty to dozens of sex crimes.
During his plea hearing, prosecutor Connie Jordan informed the court that Kelly told investigators about the school’s investigation shortly after his arrest in February 2018. Kelly, according to Jordan, said the schools had previously investigated claims that he exposed himself to students in his first year after being transferred to Isaac Bear. He changed schools in 2006.
“In the defendant’s confession, he said that it had previously been reported and that the school had done an investigation and that the school had cleared him from these acts…. Now with the plea of this defendant, we know he has been guilty of these acts all along,” Jordan said.
New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David confirmed to WECT Wednesday the criminal investigation is underway.
“Even before yesterday, we opened an investigation to look into Michael Kelly’s allegations,” David said. “The New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office has an active investigation into Michael Kelly’s claims regarding failure to report claims of child abuse. That investigation is ongoing. I have been assured by [NHCS Superintendent] Dr. Markley that the administration will be fully cooperative as we seek to unearth facts that can either refute or substantiate these serious allegations. I cannot comment further until that investigation is complete.”
It is not clear how long the investigation is expected to take. In North Carolina, it is a misdemeanor for public employees to fail to report suspicions or allegations of child abuse to law enforcement.
New Hanover County has repeatedly denied ever receiving a complaint against Kelly in his 25 years with the school system, and said he’d never had been suspended, or demoted for disciplinary reasons. We reported that denial the day after he was arrested and immediately received a call from parent Caroline Kuebler who said she filed a complaint against Kelly in 2004. She’d even kept a copy of the formal complaint on the officials NHCS complaint form, after she said repeated verbal complaints to then-Laney High School Principal Rick Holliday went nowhere.
While her written complaint only mentions Kelly making inappropriate sexual references to students, Kuebler said she told Dr. Holliday numerous times that she’d been informed by students Kelly had shown them pornography at school.
One of Kelly’s students from 2003 who was listed as a victim in the criminal case against him spoke to WECT about what went on in Kelly’s classroom. He also said that Kelly had shown pornography to students, and he said Holliday was definitely aware of it, because he’d been to a meeting in Holliday’s office at the time to discuss pornography found on Kelly’s school computer.
Holliday has repeatedly denied any knowledge of complaints about sexually inappropriate behavior by Mike Kelly at Laney High School. We have been unable to reach Holliday for comment since Kelly’s guilty plea.
"They don't have my complaint, how many other complaints were made? How do we know? That's just it. If you complain to an organization that supposedly polices itself, there could have been hundreds of complaints made. And we would never know," Kuebler lamented shortly after Kelly’s arrest.
After Jordan’s comments in court, New Hanover County Schools again denied any knowledge of complaints against Kelly. They said they’d reached out to the principals of Isaac Bear Early College High School during the time frame in question, and both principals said they were unaware of the allegations and did not investigate them.
Another indicator that administrators knew there was an issue with Kelly before his arrest also came up in Tuesday’s court proceedings. On behalf of her son, another victim’s mother informed the court there were red flags.
The woman, whose son was a freshman at Isaac Bear at the time, said Kelly invited her son to set up a lab after school at UNCW. She said she would not let him, explaining Isaac Bear administrators warned her not to allow her son to be alone with Kelly.