WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - A prominent professor from UNCW has filed a formal complaint with New Hanover County Schools, claiming the superintendent contacted his employer in an attempt to intimidate and silence him. The superintendent is refuting those claims.
Dr. Clyde Edgerton has been involved in a very public battle with NHCS over its handling of a Spanish immersion program at Forest Hills Elementary School several years ago. Edgerton says the schools were discriminating against students of color who may have been interested in the program, but were not able to participate because the school system advertised the Spanish immersion program and filled it to capacity almost exclusively with white students.
Recent developments with the arrest and conviction of Mike Kelly, a high school science teacher employed by NHCS, for dozens of sex crimes with his students spanning more than a decade, has reignited many concerns parents have had with the school system over the years. Some of those parents, including Edgerton, have openly called for an independent investigation of New Hanover County Schools for months. The school board refused, but after Kelly pleaded guilty in June, they changed course and decided to hire outside investigators.
NHCS Superintentdent Dr. Tim Markley has publicly responded to Edgerton’s renewed concerns over various perceived shortcomings of New Hanover County Schools in an op-ed in the Wilmington Star News. WECT has confirmed Markley also contacted UNCW to express concerns about their employee, Edgerton.
A UNCW spokesperson said while they did receive a call, they have no plans to take any action against Edgerton.
"I can confirm the university was contacted by Dr. Markley. The university has not taken, nor are we considering taking, any negative action against Dr. Edgerton," UNCW's Chief Communications Officer Janine Iamunno told WECT.
In his complaint, Edgerton indicates that Markley contacted his employer between December and August of this year. Under “Nature of Problem” on the complaint form, Edgerton wrote, “Intimidation and attempted abridgment of free speech by NHCS Superintendent Tim Markley through his speaking to one or more of my superiors at my place of employment regarding my protected speech and my advocacy actions on behalf of NHCS students, concerned parents, and North Carolina citizens.”
Edgerton wrote his desired outcome is that Markley be “fired or asked to resign effective immediately.”
“I have watched intimidation happen in the New Hanover school system. It is wrong. It frightens and can confuse innocent people," Edgerton said of the reason he continues his crusade years after the situation that put him at odds with NHCS. "Intimidation is bad role-modeling for administrators, teachers and children—and creates an environment of fear. It amounts to adult bullying in the schoolhouse. Secretly asking parents’ bosses to act against parents who are exercising their rights as citizens is bullying at the country-club level. It is deceitful and cowardly, and any school board should act against it—decisively and conclusively.”
Edgerton is the third person to tell WECT that NHCS contacted their employer after they challenged the school system. Another UNCW professor, Dr. Eleni Pappamihiel, simply forwarded the NHC Board of Education a letter to the editor of the Wilmington Star News in 2015 (written by someone else), questioning redistricting decisions and asking why no one from the school board attended the funeral of a Wilmington police lieutenant who had previously worked as a school resource officer.
While Pappamihiel used her UNCW account to send the email, she identified herself in the email as a parent of students in the NHCS system. She said she agreed with the contents of the letter to the editor she forwarded to the school board. In response, Dr. Markley sent an email to Pappamihiel’s supervisor, the Dean of Education at UNCW.
“I have a school board that is very irate about the email below. So irate they are considering not signing the PD agreement that Summer presented yesterday. Some see this as just another example by the UNCW and Watson staff in particular to denigrate Board members when they do not agree with decisions that are made,” said Markley, referring to Pappamiheil’s email.
Pappamihiel said she was called into the dean’s office and asked to sign a letter of apology to NHCS for her bad behavior, which she refused to do.
In another example of alleged retaliation, a deputy for the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office says the school system complained to his supervisors after he filed a Title IX complaint against NHCS.
The deputy’s daughter was sexually assaulted by another student in 2015, and he was upset the schools were not enforcing terms of a court order to keep the assailant away from her on school property.
The deputy recounted at least 11 separate occasions where school officials complained to the sheriff’s department about his efforts to advocate for his daughter. He said the result was several written reprimands in his personnel file, a threat to his livelihood. That deputy asked us not to use his name in our story because he is still employed by the sheriff’s office and still fears retaliation. He said explicit threats have been made in the past.
“That was an exact statement made to our [former personal] attorney. That if I continued to push this matter, that I would have to worry about my employment. The school’s attorney told our former attorney that in a phone conversation,” the deputy said.
New Hanover County Schools has denied the allegations made by the deputy, which are the subject of an ongoing Title IX investigation by the Office of Civil Rights.
In response to our request for comment on this story, Superintendent Markley provided the following statement:
“I have spoken to UNCW officials about Mr. Edgerton in the past, just as he as spoken to New Hanover County Board of Education members in the past. None of those conversations was an attempt to silence him. As a tenured professor, he knows that would be impossible. This is simply another attempt to garner attention to himself. In regards to contacting the Sheriff’s Office about the unnamed deputy, any calls to the Sheriff’s Office were in regards to specific issues or concerns.”
We reached out to several school board members for their reaction to these parent concerns.
“The board will treat that complaint and all parent complaints with the utmost respect and seriousness,” New Hanover County School Board Chair Lisa Estep said. "I’m not commenting specifically, but in general reaching out to the employer of someone who complained would not be allowed. That would be retaliation and under state law you cannot retaliate.”
“Every single resident of New Hanover County has an absolute right to have their complaints heard by this school system and this board without fear of any type of reprisal whatsoever," board member Nelson Beaulier added. "It’s a basic right in our democracy and it’s a personal and passionate value of mine. Period.”
He echoed that he was unable to say anything about the specific parent complaints because they are personnel matters.
“I was elected to be on the school board to protect people’s rights and to provide quality education for our kids. That should be our primary concern. Right now there are possible actions that we as a board should address because this is our main goal. Every citizen has a right to their first amendment speech, especially when they see a need that needs to be addressed. We are in partnership with our parents, and their voices need to be heard when they have a concern,” board member Judy Justice told us when asked for comment on this story.