Part Two: Cover-Up Culture? - WECT Investigates administrators’ response to sexual abuse at New Hanover County Schools

Updated: Aug. 18, 2020 at 8:38 AM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Eleven years ago, after a teacher was arrested for indecent liberties with a student, a New Hanover County Schools administrator said: “We hate that a student was involved. So it is making us look at what we do, and how we do it, and those sorts of things when we work with teachers.”

That comment was made in 2009 by John Welmers, who at the time was the district’s assistant superintendent for human resources, after the arrest of former Williston Middle School teacher Jessica Wishnask. A year later, Wishnask would plead guilty to indecent liberties with a minor after she was caught in an intimate relationship with a 15-year-old.

While the district said it would re-evaluate its policies on investigating alleged sexual abuse, over the next 11 years three more employees would be arrested for sex-related crimes against students, and one would be arrested for crimes committed after leaving the district.

In the case of former band teacher Peter Frank, who was arrested in January, some of the alleged criminal activity that led to the teacher being charged with a series of sex-related crimes had been going on — and documented in his personnel file — as far back as 1999.

Former teacher of the year Michael Kelly admitted to committing sex crimes against his students as far back as 2003. Kelly pleaded guilty to 59 charges in June 2019.

In Part One of this investigation, WECT laid out the events of the last two decades and the cases of five employees who were arrested on sex-related charges against minors.

Administrators, including Welmers, former assistant superintendent Rick Holliday and former superintendent Tim Markley, who joined the district in 2010, have said they did not know anything was going on.

Since Kelly and Frank were arrested, Welmers and Markley have resigned, and Holliday abruptly retired.

Attorneys, parents, and victims say they believe it is impossible that the administrators knew nothing — because they had been complaining for years to school leadership that teachers were behaving inappropriately.

That led them to speak with WECT about their experiences, and in some cases share the documents that show they tried to raise the alarm, but were rebuffed.

Rick Holliday in a yearbook photo from the 1990s.
Rick Holliday in a yearbook photo from the 1990s.(New Hanover County Library)

Administrators said they didn’t know — but WECT found that a parent sounded the alarm about Kelly’s behavior 15 years before he was arrested in February 2018.

Carolina Kuebler, a parent of a student who attended E.A. Laney High School when Michael Kelly was a teacher there, complained for the first time in the spring of 2003, after she said she heard Kelly had shown pornography to students.

Kuebler said Holliday, who was principal at Laney at the time, sent her a letter in August of that year in response to her concerns, but nothing changed.

In January 2004, she filed a formal complaint against Kelly with the school system — a document she kept a copy of and showed WECT after Kelly was arrested in 2018.

When WECT attempted to find out if others had formally complained to administrators about Kelly, NHCS initially claimed it had no complaints on file about Kelly after his arrest.

After presenting officials with Kuebler’s complaint, the school system said it didn’t have any records of personnel complaints against any employees prior to 2004 because its records system had changed.

When WECT asked him in 2018, Holliday said he had no memory of Kuebler or her complaints to him regarding the science teacher.

Kuebler says she doesn’t know how Holliday can claim ignorance.

“Everyone kind of knew something,” she said. “That’s what bothers me, is everyone kind of knew this or kind of knew that.”

Kuebler isn’t the only one who told WECT they tried to raise the alarm about Kelly.

WECT also spoke to a former student, now an adult, who was in Kelly’s class that year. That former student, who was one of Kelly’s victims and asked not to be identified, specifically told us that Holliday knew Kelly had porn on his school computer, because he’d attended a meeting in Holliday’s office about it after Holliday found out. Holliday also denied that claim.

Michael Tomaselli, another victim of Kelly’s who testified at his sentencing hearing, said his classmates tried to tell staff and leadership at Isaac Bear Early College about the inappropriate jokes Kelly would tell in class, but the concerns were shrugged off. Because of this, he decided not to even try bringing it up with an adult.

“As far as who should’ve seen [the red flags], they were there for everyone to see, just people were not looking for them. They said ‘Oh, he was the teacher of the year. That’s just how he is. He makes these kind of jokes,’ rather than saying, ‘Wait a minute, if he’s making these jokes is there anything else he’s doing?‘”

Tomaselli said what began as inappropriate jokes escalated into Kelly showing the students pornography, exposing himself and encouraging them to expose themselves.

Both Kelly and Frank were arrested while still on the job with New Hanover County Schools, but personnel files for the two other teachers arrested and charged with child sex-related crimes after leaving the school system show there had been investigations into their behavior — but no action taken.

Nicholas Oates (Source: New Hanover County Detention Center)
Nicholas Oates (Source: New Hanover County Detention Center)
Jessica Wishnask (Source: WPD)
Jessica Wishnask (Source: WPD)

Nicholas Oates and Jessica Wishnask were eventually arrested for their contact with students while they were employees of NHCS. Wishnask pleaded guilty, and while Oates died before his day in court, the district attorney’s office told WECT he had admitted to the relationship to law enforcement officers.

According to personnel files released by the school system, both had been suspended in the months prior to their departure from the school system, but because they were not fired, they went on to work at other educational facilities without incident.

Wishnask even secured a letter of recommendation from Welmers, and used it to get a new position in Pitt County. Welmers gave her the letter despite the 2008 investigation and suspension in her file.

In 2009, when that letter came to light, Welmers told the StarNews he did what he thought was best based on the information he had, but in hindsight regretted it.

That letter upset Elizabeth Redenbaugh, who was a member of the school board at the time, and was one of the board members who demanded to see Wishnask’s personnel file after she was arrested.

“I was terribly upset that our assistant superintendent of human resources had written a letter of recommendation for her, and she had gone to work at a different school system. I was so upset that I actually demanded to see her personnel file as well as the investigation into that.”

Dr John Welmers
Dr John Welmers(New Hanover County Schools)

Redenbaugh said while the file didn’t contain anything she would call a “smoking gun,” she believed it contained indications that something inappropriate was going on.

“There were clues throughout that personnel file,” she said.

Redenbaugh said two fellow board members, Nick Rhodes and Dorothy DeShields, agreed, and actually wanted to fire Welmers, but couldn’t get the votes.

One of those who didn’t want to fire Welmers, they said, was Ed Higgins.

After Wishnask was arrested, Higgins, who served on the board from 1994 to 2018, said he thought the district had done everything it could in its investigation.

Today, he says the same, and that because of the way state law is written, the school system could be held liable if they disclose certain information to other school districts after a teacher leaves.

“Unfortunately, that’s also a provision in the state statutes that allows a teacher who is potentially being brought up [in investigations] to be able to walk away,” he said.

He added that he had no knowledge of any sexual abuse taking place in the district while he served, and said if he had been told he would have gone to law enforcement.

“I would not be tolerant at all of a teacher taking advantage of a student, he said, “that is totally unforgivable.”

A few years later Nicholas Oates was suspended twice at the end of 2016 and beginning of 2017, both times without pay, related to the “relationship” he had with a middle school student. Oates worked as a special education assistant at Myrtle Grove Middle School.

“That is the crime he was later arrested for, so it wasn’t like he then committed a crime later,” said Ben Schachtman of Port City Daily.

Because Oates wasn’t a career or tenured teacher, he could have been fired for any policy violation, including an inappropriate relationship with a student.

“One of the things you’re not allowed to do is have any kind of romantic relationship with a student. So, [administrators] could have at least fired him,” Schachtman said.

Because he wasn’t fired, Oates was able to leave the district and move on to another educational facility where he would have direct contact with minors.

This, Schachtman said, led to a lot of outrage from the community.

“So he was hired, he did something that was reprehensible allegedly, he was allowed to resign without being fired and then he went on to work with children again before he was arrested,” he said. “That was what really got to the heart of what upset people so much.”

When search warrants were returned in the Peter Frank case, they indicated the teacher had been “counseled” in the past for having “inappropriate relationships” with students.

Those warrants say there was a letter in Frank’s personnel file from as far back as 1999 where he took a student home to play video games.

Because some cases never go to trial, the search warrant is at times the only way the public...
Because some cases never go to trial, the search warrant is at times the only way the public ever learns what police know about matters of public concern.(WECT)

In May 2013, the documents say Frank made an inappropriate comment on a photo posted on social media of one of his students wearing a bathing suit. Frank reportedly wrote, “I can’t say really what I want to say but it might rhyme with lubes.” The incident resulted in another letter in his file.

The warrants, served on New Hanover County Schools as well Frank’s home, detail other incidents.

When those warrants were released, the school system said it would release portions of Frank’s personnel file, but so far that has not happened.

After Frank was arrested, Lynn Shoemaker, a parent who has spoken out strongly about how she believes the district mishandled the cases of sexual abuse, said she had raised concerns about a middle school band teacher nine months before the arrest.

In an email sent to two board members in April 2019, Shoemaker said she had received a message on social media that a student at a NHCS middle school had been assaulted by their male band teacher — at the time, only two teachers at the school fit that description.

Journalists at Port City Daily dug into the email chains that followed, which school board members argue show they tried to do the right thing by passing the comments on to school administrators.

Administrators said they followed up, and passed the information and concern on to law enforcement in the summer of 2019.

However, at a hearing in the Peter Frank case, the district attorney’s office indicated it was first made aware of the issue on Jan. 13, 2020.

When asked at a press conference Jan. 31 about Shoemaker’s tip, school board members claimed it would be an “invasion of privacy” to go through the files when a teacher had not been named.

But while the public doesn’t have access to an employee’s file — the school board and administration do, former board member Redenbaugh explained.

As in the case of Wishnask, the school board can ask to see any employee’s personnel file, even if they have to do so in a closed session.

The school board does not hire and fire teachers like it does administrators, but as the elected custodians of the district, state law allows them to view any employee’s file.

At the Jan. 31 press conference where they addressed the arrest of Peter Frank, WECT asked school board members if they thought there was a culture of covering up sexual abuse at New Hanover County Schools.

Board members demurred, citing ongoing litigation.

That litigation — brought by victims of Michael Kelly — claims the school district, former superintendent Tim Markley and former deputy superintendent Rick Holliday not only “failed to comply with its legal and moral obligations” by allegedly ignoring complaints and not investigating Kelly’s behavior, but actually made it worse by moving him to a smaller school, Isaac Bear, where he had more close contact with students.

The complaint, which has been amended since its first filing to include additional victims outside of those who spoke with law enforcement in Kelly’s criminal proceedings, references the sentencing hearing where prosecutor Connie Jordan informed the court Kelly told law enforcement school administrators knew what was going on.

“The defendant admitted that he had been accused of exposing himself right when he started at Isaac Bear, that the school had done an investigation,” Jordan said at the hearing. “I could not find any indication that anything had been reported to law enforcement and they had cleared the defendant of that accusation, and clearly that accusation was correct, which then let the defendant continue offending on students for another more than a decade with his time at Isaac Bear.”

The prosecutor’s comments at the sentencing also launched a criminal investigation, which was pushed to the State Bureau of Investigation, to see if any failure to report laws were broken.

The civil complaint also references the case of Richard Priode, a band teacher who was reported to Holliday for inappropriate behavior, but left the district, only to be arrested in Charlotte for having sexual contact with a student there.

In legal filings, the defendants in the lawsuit have denied knowledge of the crimes.

Holliday has not returned WECT’s requests for comment, and Markley hung up after a reporter identified herself on the phone.

A spokesperson for the school system said the district did not have a comment.

For Jim Lea, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the case, the lawsuit is not just about the damage to the victims — though he says being made whole for the emotional trauma they’ve experienced is important.

“The case is about is holding responsible people in the system or the system itself for not having uncovered this years ago, if they claim they didn’t, or [not] taking responsible action like they are trying to do now 20 years [later] to prevent these types of things from happening,” Lea said.

Lea said he believes the employees’ conduct was either covered up or willfully ignored.

“You can’t say that, ‘Oh we never knew anything like this was happening,‘” he said. “Over the years what was set up, and the people that were involved in this lawsuit set up, a line of defense, in a way.”

When asked the same question, Redenbaugh said she thinks it was just dealt with incredibly poorly.

“I just think it was really grossly mishandled,” she said.

She attributes that to the district trying to do its own investigation, rather the outsourcing it to a third party.

She also thinks it’s due, in part, to lack of proper training.

“I think you need training top to bottom that no one is excluded from that training. Everyone needs to know how to report, what are the signs, what to look for. I mean, I think we know now as a society people that are pedophiles, that are predators, child predators, they earn the trust of other adults,” she said. “That’s why they’re Boy Scout leaders and youth ministers, they are in these positions of trust and then when it happens no one can believe that that occurred.”

But Redenbaugh said she thinks one reason the complaints from parents weren’t addressed was also because they didn’t want to deal with it due to the sexual nature of the complaints.

She said she knows this because she experienced it first hand when her own child was touched inappropriately by another student, but she said the issue was not addressed because of end of year testing.

“Just that end of grade testing was more important than what my child was going through,” she said. “So for the parent out there that has persistently let the school system know of the problem, I mean I understand how much that hurts and how sick it makes you.”

Other parents, though, are convinced the issue goes beyond ignorance or lack of awareness.

“There’s no excuse for it. It’s almost like they [couldn’t] care less, you know,” Kuebler, the mother of a Laney student during Kelly’s tenure, said.

Tomaselli said the response to complaints about Kelly made him think justice might never be served.

“I never thought it would end. I never sat down long enough to think about the possibility of him getting in trouble, an investigation,” he said. “I had to just put it away. I put it away in a nice neat little box and tried to never touch it again.”

This is part two of WECT’s investigative series into the history of sexual abuse at New Hanover County Schools. See Parts One, Three and Four for more coverage.

If you or someone you know needs help regarding sexual abuse, you can contact Southeastern North Carolina’s rape crisis center, Wilmington’s Carousel Center or the Chrysalis Center.

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