WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Attorneys representing the victims of sex crimes perpetrated by a former New Hanover County Schools teacher hope to bring a class action lawsuit against the school system. Attorneys Jim Lea, Ryan Schultz, Joel Rhine and Martin Ramey filed suit against New Hanover County Schools Tuesday.
A judge will ultimately decide if this can proceed as a class action, but attorney Jim Lea explained it fits the criteria. Specifically, there is commonality in the claims: former teacher Michael Kelly is the perpetrator against all of the victims they represent, there is a common general set of facts in that Kelly engaged in sexual activity with the victims, and there is a common class. The victims are all boys who were under the age of 18 at the time they were victimized.
Kelly pleaded guilty to 59 charges on June 25, including sexual exploitation of minor, indecent liberties with a student and indecent liberties with a child, and was sentenced to spend 17-31 years in prison for his crimes. Many of the crimes occurred on school grounds. Kelly was Teacher of the Year at Isaac Bear Early College High School. Before that, he taught science at Laney High School.
By pursuing this as a class action, Lea said it would enable all of Kelly’s victims, including those who have yet to come forward, to get compensation. If the judge does not allow them to proceed with a class action, the attorneys plan to list the victims anonymously on the lawsuit in John Doe format to protect their privacy.
The Lea/Schultz Law Firm and the Rhine Law Firm announced two weeks ago they were representing some of Kelly’s victims and exploring evidence for a possible civil suit against the school system. Since that time, they say more victims have come forward, and they anticipate additional victims will also sign on to the case before this proceeds to trial.
“We feel there’s been a real flaw in the school system over the last 15-20 years,” Lea said of the intent behind the suit. In addition to compensation for the victims, they hope to provide a remedy for the safety of other students moving forward, including training for school personnel on how to spot sexual predators.
The attorneys, who have children of their own in the NHCS system, also want to see major changes in the leadership at NHCS. One long-time school leader, Deputy Superintendent Rick Holliday, abruptly announced his retirement less than a week after Kelly’s guilty plea. A number of students and parents had come forward to say Holliday was aware of Kelly’s concerning behavior more than a decade before he was finally arrested, but did nothing.
“We think the current administration all need to go. All of them,” Lea added. He said he did not think the investigation being conducted by Brooks Pierce, a law firm hired by the school system, would be adequate. He noted that much of their investigation will occur behind closed doors, and that the law firm specializes in defending reputations and making issues “go away,” according to information on the firm’s website.
In a July 19 letter, the Rhine/Lea team asked several pointed questions to attorneys representing NHCS and the School Board about the nature of their role in this investigation. They asked if Brooks Pierce had an attorney-client relationship with NHCS with respect to the investigation, potentially protecting the disclosure of what they uncover. They asked if Brooks Pierce would be sharing their findings from the investigation with Tharrington Smith, another firm hired by the schools to represent them in claims that may be brought by Kelly’s sexual abuse victims. The Rhine/Lea team also asked if the information gathered by Brooks Pierce would be shared with the public.
In addition, the State Bureau of Investigation is conducting a criminal investigation into claims that school administrators knew about his behavior but failed to report it to law enforcement, as required by law for public employees. Kelly told investigators shortly after his arrest that the school looked into claims he had exposed himself to a student, but cleared him.
Attorneys discussed causes of action they plan to bring, hurdles they face and bills currently being considered in the state legislature that could impact the statute of limitations in this case at a 4 p.m. press conference Tuesday.
Under current law, some of Kelly’s earliest victims appear unable to seek civil remedies against NHCS because the crimes happened more than ten years ago.