New Hanover Board of Education flipped its stance on independent investigation. How did we get here?

Updated: Jul. 11, 2019 at 4:14 PM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - After months of refusing to conduct an independent investigation into allegations of mishandled incidents involving students, the New Hanover County Board of Education pulled an about-face, at least in part, announcing it would review claims that administrators had previously been made aware of former teacher Mike Kelly’s inappropriate behavior with students and not reported those allegations to law enforcement.

Then, on Tuesday, the board further decided to hire a law firm to “conduct an independent investigation of the handling of the allegations surrounding former personnel of the district.” That decision was made following a lengthy closed session late Tuesday night.

Calls for an independent investigation began in December, when a group of concerned citizens and activists discussed six cases allegedly mishandled by school administrators.

That request was denied, despite some of the newly-elected board members campaigning for increased transparency. Several of the board members cited a lack of subpoena power, adding that an internal review would be unnecessary because several of the incidents were already under investigation by law enforcement.

The issue came to head when Kelly, who had been with the district for nearly two decades, pleaded guilty in June to nearly 60 sex crimes, many of which involved students of his.

In his plea hearing, it was revealed Kelly told law enforcement following his arrest that the school district had previously investigated claims he had been inappropriate with students and cleared him of any wrongdoing. Prosecutors said district administrators never reported the allegation to law enforcement, which is a violation of state law that could result in misdemeanor charges.

Following the release of this information, the school district issued a statement contesting Kelly’s recollection and denying any wrongdoing.

Initially, District Attorney Ben David confirmed the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office was investigating Kelly’s claim, but early last week said the probe had been handed over to the State Bureau of Investigation because of the working relationship between his office, the sheriff’s office, and the school district.

Earlier that same day and hours before a special-called meeting of the school board, Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday, who has been named in complaints related to Kelly, announced his retirement. Holliday did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The board announced the internal investigation following a closed session during that special-called meeting. It is unclear what caused the board to change its mind.

Specific details about how the investigation would be conducted were not released until Wednesday evening, when the district announced it had voted the night prior to hire attorneys with the Brooks Pierce Law Firm.

The board’s vote to hire the law firm occurred following the second of two closed sessions during Tuesday’s lengthy meeting, after members of the media had left. A spokesperson for the district released a statement about the decision just before 7 p.m. Wednesday evening, nearly 24 hours after the vote.

WECT has reached out to the school district to confirm exactly what time the vote was held.

The district’s statement read, in part: “The Board felt that there was value in getting an objective, thorough look at our practices and procedures and an understanding of what happened in the past so that we can assure appropriate practices and policies are in place in the future.”

Responding to questions regarding the scope of the law firm’s investigation, Board Chair Lisa Estep said in an email on Thursday it “will be defined between the law firm and the board at a meeting next week, and may be modified over time as things arise.”

Estep added the law firm will cooperate with the ongoing criminal investigation and separate civil investigation being conducted by attorneys representing some of Kelly’s victims, “so as not to avoid an interference or concern.”

In a separate statement sent Thursday morning, New Hanover County Board of Commissioners Chair Jonathan Barfield said he was glad to see the board of education decided to conduct an independent investigation.

“This is an incredibly important issue and one that the Board of Commissioners feels strongly should be thoroughly investigated,” he said. “Our children must feel safe, valued and heard at all times, especially in our schools. My fellow Commissioners and I will remain engaged in this issue and work closely with the Board of Education to ensure the right plans and practices are in place to keep our children secure.”

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