Attorneys exploring evidence for civil suit following teacher sex crime scandal

Updated: Jul. 9, 2019 at 2:37 PM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Two Wilmington law firms have announced they are investigating evidence for a possible civil lawsuit against New Hanover County Schools, after a recent scandal involving students being abused by their teacher.

Attorneys Jim Lea, Ryan Schultz, Joel Rhine and Martin Ramey announced their two firms are representing “several victims of sexual abuse that occurred at local New Hanover County Schools within the last two decades.” Michael Kelly, a former teacher of the year who taught science at Laney High School and Isaac Bear Early College High School, recently pleaded guilty to dozens of crimes against his students.

“On behalf of our clients, we are working diligently to conduct an independent civil investigation into the facts, one separate from that being conducted by law enforcement and/or the school system,” a press release the attorneys sent to WECT read. “Our focus is on whether anyone employing Kelly knew of his behavior and should bear any responsibility within our civil justice system to our clients. Because our investigation is ongoing, we have asked our clients to refrain from making public comment on the issues until such time as we can reach a conclusion to our investigation.”

In a public records request submitted Tuesday,

Before and after Kelly’s guilty plea, WECT spoke to a number of Kelly’s victims and their family members. We have also spoken to other students and parents who have complained about inappropriate behavior by other teachers within the school system, some of it sexual in nature, who felt their concerns fell on deaf ears when they approached school administrators.

There are common threads within their stories, including specific frustration with Deputy Superintendent Rick Holliday not helping them. Holliday previously served as principal of Laney High School and still works as the Title IX coordinator for NHCS, a position that puts him at the helm of the investigation into complaints about inappropriate teacher behavior. Holliday abruptly announced his retirement on July 1, less than a week after Kelly’s guilty plea.

In open court during Kelly’s plea hearing, Prosecutor Connie Jordan called it “upsetting” and “disturbing” that Kelly admitted to investigators after his 2018 arrest he’d been accused of exposing himself shortly after he began teaching at Isaac Bear (in 2006), and those concerns were not shared with law enforcement. Jordan said Kelly told investigators he’d been cleared during the school’s investigation into the allegations.

“Now with the plea of the defendant, we know he has been guilty of these acts all along,” Jordan said, adding that he then continued to offend against other students for more than a decade.

Some parents raised concerns about Kelly being inappropriate with students as early as 2003. Caroline Kuebler kept a copy of the formal complaint she filed in January 2004, after she said her verbal complaints about Kelly to Principal Rick Holliday were ignored. Holliday has repeatedly denied any knowledge of previous complaints about Kelly.

For victims seeking monetary compensation from New Hanover County Schools for their alleged role in this scandal, time is limited. We are still seeking to clarify how the civil statute of limitations applies in a sex crime spree dating back well over a decade. Lynn Shoemaker, a local activist who has been helping victims connect with one another and attorneys, says victims need to act quickly.

“We have cases going back to 2009 that are still eligible depending on where that ten year cutoff is for the victim, they really do need to be joining with the group here,” Shoemaker explained. Many victims have not yet come forward to anyone except law enforcement. Since victims’ identities are confidential, it has been challenging for some survivors to know how to connect with one another.

Shoemaker has been networking with victims on social media and meeting every other Tuesday at Fox’s Boxes in Downtown Wilmington. Organizers created a #MeToo support group for people who feel they are victims of abuse connected to New Hanover County Schools, though not necessarily connected to Kelly.

Shoemaker said there is no statute of limitations for minors who were victims of sex crimes, but once they turn 18, the clock for civil action starts ticking. Despite the sensitive nature of the crimes these families have fallen victim to, Shoemaker said they cannot afford to wait.

“We are going to protect their confidentiality, but if they are going to get in this, they need to kind of hurry up and get in this. There is power in number. And they are not alone. There is a large group,” Shoemaker said.

A civil lawsuit has not yet been filed.

The New Hanover County Board of Education held a closed session prior to its schedule meeting on Tuesday.

NHC Board of Education Chair Lisa Estep would not say if the Kelly case was discussed, but board members wanted to keep the focus on Kelly’s victims.

“You had someone who pleaded guilty to some really horrible things and that’s the bottom line," said Estep. "What you have to keep in your heart are the victims of all of this so I’m not gonna comment on the stress for us.”

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