Part Three: Cover-Up Culture? WECT Investigates claims of retaliation in the face of abuse reports at NHCS

School administrators knew about the abuse but failed to report it.
Updated: Aug. 24, 2020 at 5:02 PM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY N.C. (WECT) - Caroline Kuebler thought bringing reports of inappropriate behavior by a science teacher to the attention of school administrators would help eliminate the problem — instead, she said she believes her complaints resulted in her son suffering because of those administrators’ actions.

In the early 2000′s, Kuebler’s son was a student of Michael Kelly, the former teacher of the year who pleaded guilty in 2019 to dozens counts of sex-related crimes against students at Laney and at Isaac Bear Early College High School.

She had heard from another parent, her son, and eventually other students that Kelly had been making inappropriate comments during class, and even showing pornography to students.

Kelly is one of five former New Hanover County Schools employees WECT has investigated as part of a look into the history of sexual abuse in the school system. Jessica Wishnask pleaded guilty to indecent liberties with a minor, Richard Priode pleaded guilty to having a sexual relationship with a student after he left the district, Nicholas Oates died while awaiting trial for charges of indecent liberties with a child, and Peter Frank remains in custody on a series of sex-related charges.

In addition to questions about whether the school system covered up the sexual abuse, parents say in several cases their complaints and concern were met with retaliation by school leaders.

Kuebler’s son was not one of the named victims in the criminal investigation into Kelly, but after hearing the reports of what Kelly was doing, Kuebler first tried to talk to Kelly directly, but nothing changed. Then, she said she went to Laney principal Rick Holliday, but said she could not get a straight answer and did not feel confident the situation was being addressed.

Kuebler said she believes her son was then retaliated against by both Kelly and Holliday.

Kelly, she alleged, docked the scores of tests her son took in his class by 20 points, and then erroneously accused him of cheating, both negatively affecting his grades at the time he was applying for college.

WECT has tried to reach Kelly through both the legal system and his attorney but received no response.

Additionally, Kuebler said she believes Holliday used these grade changes to have the Department of Motor Vehicles suspend her son’s driver’s license, without notifying her first that it would be revoked due to grades.

“I thought it was the meanest thing to do. I came forward. Not him,” she said.

It was at this point, early in 2004, that Kuebler filed a formal complaint with the school district — a complaint of which the district said it has no record because they changed filing systems and Holliday denied knowledge.

Holliday retired from New Hanover County Schools effective Aug. 1, 2019 — just before the start of the school year and about a week after Kelly pleaded guilty.

At that hearing, the prosecution told the court Kelly told law enforcement that in the case of one of the charges against him, the school system had investigated and cleared him.

Attempts to reach Holliday were unsuccessful.

It wasn’t just cases related to Kelly — two different parents told WECT they experienced retaliation when they complained about the behavior of Richard Priode, the band director at Laney who after resigning from the district would eventually be arrested in Charlotte and plead guilty to having a sexual “relationship” with a student there.

The first parent to complain, Barbara Burnett, did so in 1999 after she said her daughter was physically, but not sexually, abused by Priode during a field trip.

Her daughter went to see Holliday about that incident, but Burnett said the administrator pushed back.

“As an adult, he was attempting to intimidate her. He called her in, he asked what happened, she told him and then he said ‘well, put it in writing,‘” she said, pointing out adults had also complained about Priode by this point. “I think that was an effort to intimidate her. She wasn’t intimidated.”

Burnett was not alone in complaining about Priode, only to claim she was retaliated against by administrators.

Toree McLamb also came forward 20 years ago after a student she was tutoring said Priode had made sexually inappropriate comments to her.

She, too, said Holliday dismissed her concern and said she believes the interaction is the reason she was not considered for one of several open positions at the school she had applied for, despite being highly qualified.

Kuebler, Burnett, and McLamb weren’t the only ones who told WECT they experienced retaliation after questioning how sex-related crimes were handled by the school system.

One, who asked not to be identified because of his employment as a sheriff’s deputy, filed a Title IX complaint against the school system after his daughter was sexually assaulted by another student, but the school would not enforce the protective order she had against him.

Instead of helping resolve the situation after he complained, the deputy said Holliday called the New Hanover County sheriff and questioned the deputy’s mental state — something that could have cost him his badge.

I still feel threatened, I still feel uncomfortable,” the parent said. “I still feel as though there is always still that possibility that I may for false accusations be fired. I may be fired for simply advocating for what’s right.”

Additionally, he said the school system also had his daughter’s driver’s license suspended for no clear reason.

When he retired in 2019, Holliday was deputy superintendent to Tim Markley.

Markley resigned from NHCS Feb. 7, a few days after search warrants were served on the school system regarding Peter Frank — the Roland Grise Band Teacher arrested in January on a series of sex-related charges — those warrants showed Frank had been “counseled” about inappropriate behavior with students for years.

Markley himself has been accused of retaliatory behavior — just a few weeks before resigning, he was suspended by the school board for such an incident.

Clyde Edgerton, a community activist who has spoken out publicly about the school system’s handling of sexual abuse as well as racial inequity, accused Markley of retaliating against him for his advocacy and infringing on his rights.

Edgerton filed a complaint with the school system about Markley, and that complaint claimed Markley contacted Edgerton’s employer, UNCW.

The university confirmed Markley contacted them, but said they had not and would not consider taking any action against Edgerton.

Regardless, Markley’s actions were unacceptable to Edgerton, and he believes they were an attempt to curtail his freedom of speech.

“I think he deserves to be fired,” he said of Markley before he resigned. “I think any person who has a record like his of intimidation, uh, cover-up and corruption should be fired.”

When contacted by WECT by phone, Markley hung up after a reporter identified herself. Calls and emails to Holliday were not returned.

Beyond the retaliatory consequences she said her son faced directly, Kuebler said the district’s reaction to parent complaints led to a top-down chilling effect when it came to dealing with crimes that would ultimately be admitted in court.

“You know, where they’ve got their head there. And then everyone else is just going to bow down and quiver and do whatever it is that they tell them or else they won’t have a job, they won’t have retirement,” she said.

Burnett, who complained about Priode more than 20 years ago, said she believes that culture emboldened people like Kelly, Priode, and Frank.

“Once the first victim came and they were protected, they felt safer with the second. And then they were protected. And it’s just a giant snowball,” she said.

This alleged culture of retaliation and the alleged failure to properly report the crimes, figure prominently in two civil lawsuits, filed on behalf of the victims of Michael Kelly and the alleged victims of Peter Frank, as well as a criminal investigation into the school administration by the State Bureau of Investigation. At last check, the criminal investigation was ongoing.

This is part three of WECT’s investigative series into the history of sexual abuse at New Hanover County Schools. Read Parts One, Two 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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