Part Four: Cover-Up Culture? WECT Investigates how the embattled NHCS system can move forward and heal from decades of abuse

Updated: Aug. 31, 2020 at 6:40 PM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Michael Tomaselli didn’t intend on speaking when he walked into the courtroom.

He said he had simply planned to watch the proceedings, as his former science teacher Michael Kelly, who had just pleaded guilty to 59 sex-related crimes, was sentenced.

“Originally I just wanted to put this in a box and never touch it again,” he said,”[but] I felt that I had to go to the courtroom that day to see it happen. To get that closure.”

Kelly’s sentencing hearing on June 25, 2019 was attended by several victims and their families, as well as members of the media and a number of concerned citizens who had watched the case unfold.

When the defense attorneys were making their arguments, however, Tomaselli said he became angry and overwhelmed with the need to say something to combat the defense’s narrative — that Kelly was a good teacher who was involved in the community, but had just made a terrible mistake.

Tomasselli tapped the prosecutor on the shoulder, and said he had changed his mind: He would offer a victim impact statement, “because those same circumstances that were mentioned in the courtroom were the same kind of things that make this behavior go unchallenged for so long,” he said.

Kelly’s case is one of five investigated by WECT, where former New Hanover County Schools employees were charged with sex-related crimes. Two of those cases, Kelly and the most recently arrested, Peter Frank, came to light while the teachers were still employed by NHCS. Frank remains in custody and is awaiting trial on a series of indecent liberties charges. Nicholas Oates, who died in jail a few days before his next court appearance on indecent liberties charges, and Jessica Wishnask, who pleaded guilty to indecent liberties charges, were arrested after they left the district for new jobs, but for contact they had with NHCS students. Richard Priode was arrested in Charlotte for having sexual contact with a student there after resigning from NHCS where he had been the subject of complaints by parents.

After looking at the history of the cases, as well as allegations by parents that their concerns were ignored, covered up or even led to retaliation, WECT asked victims, families, advocates and the school system: What comes next?

“We’ve got a lot of healing to do and we’ve got a lot of stuff we need to do to move forward effectively,” said Jim Lea, an attorney for victims of Michael Kelly who are suing the school system and former administrators.

About two months prior to the arrest of Peter Frank, the New Hanover County Schools system launched a new program called Ethix 360.

The online portal allows students, parents or any concerned person to file a report, either anonymously or by name. Reports can be made about a variety of issues, from late school buses to sexual assault.

When the new program was launched, the school system said its goal was to streamline the complaints process and more easily get issues into the right hands — including the hands of law enforcement if the need should arise.

The system is also designed to provide a centralized system to track those complaints, and identify patterns that might exist.

In just the first few months, the school system reported Ethix 360 had generated “hundreds” of complaints, but didn’t specify what those complaints were about.

The school system also successfully requested $358,420 from the New Hanover County Commission to fund additional Title-IX investigators within the school system as well as mental health resources.

“There’s no price on keeping our kids safe,” said chair Julia Olson-Boseman at the Feb. 16 meeting where the funding was approved.

A school spokesperson said the committee in charge of Title-IX has increased its transparency efforts, and resources and requirements have been made more accessible for faculty and staff.

When WECT reached out to the school system, a spokesperson said they were working on a response beyond outlining Ethix 360 and the new investigators, but would need to talk to the district’s new superintendent, who was not available by the time this story was published.

Former members of the school board say having staff dedicated to digging into allegations are definitely needed.

“We need some skilled investigators to look at our school system with regard to these issues and determine what’s wrong and how to fix it,” said Nick Rhodes, who served on the board from 2006-2010. “I will predict once that investigation is done, if it’s done, you will find additional problems.”

But some, including Elizabeth Redenbaugh, who served from 2008 to 2012, say they think the investigation should come from outside the district, not from within.

Both Redenbaugh and Rhodes were on the board when Jessica Wishnask was arrested in 2009.

“I don’t think [NHCS] or any school system, or any organization, should be investigating itself when something like that happens,” Redenbaugh said.

At first, the school board declined to have a third party investigate its handling of the history of sex-related crimes by employees, but in July 2019, shortly after Kelly pleaded guilty and was sentenced, they hired Brooks Pierce Law Firm to look at the situation.

However, the firm isn’t the only entity looking into it.

A spokesperson for the North Carolina Department of Justice said the investigation requested by District Attorney Ben David being done by the State Bureau of Investigation is still underway.

That criminal investigation is looking to determine if any laws were broken — namely North Carolina’s requirement that adults must report any credible allegation of sexual abuse against children to law enforcement.

In addition to investigations, a civil case is underway, filed on behalf of at least 10 victims of Kelly. A separate civil case on behalf of the alleged victims of Peter Frank has also been filed.

The Kelly suit, which added additional victims in a new filing earlier this year, was deemed “exceptional” by the courts because of its complexity, and seeks class action relief on behalf of other students above and beyond those referenced anonymously in the complaint.

Lea, one of the attorneys representing the victims, said the action is about two things: making sure things are actually done to prevent sexual abuse by teachers from happening again, and making the victims whole.

“We have talked to quite a few people, quite a few victims of what’s going on, and it’s heartbreaking,” he said. “It is really heartbreaking to talk to them and see what’s going on and how they’ve been taken advantage of and how it has followed them into adulthood.”

Lea has laid out what he believes is the school system’s responsibility: “Either there was malicious cover up or a willful ignorance, and neither one of those are good.”

The suit seeks to establish a fund, where victims of past abuse could apply, and a third part could determine the validity of a claim.

While he says not everything is about money, the victims in the Kelly case have suffered — in some cases to the point the trauma has made it difficult to earn a living.

“You can’t just brush aside the damage that’s been done to a lot of young people in this community, and people that have grown up and gone out into the world and suffered the consequences of having been sexually abused and taken advantage of when they were very young,” Lea said.

Responses have been filed in the suit, with the school system arguing governmental immunity and former administrators saying they had no knowledge of what was happening with Kelly.

For victims like Tomaselli, moving forward is painful.

The arrests, investigations and lawsuits have brought back to the surface emotions and memories that for many were long-buried.

“[Victims have] responded in explosive anger, depression, anxiety,” Tomaselli said. “Each of us have responded very differently to having to confront this again.”

He said when Kelly was arrested in 2018, he said he felt numb — shocked that the abuse had finally been addressed.

But then, he said, he watched the events of late January and early February with frustration.

In particular, Tomaselli said seeing Tim Markley, who resigned less than a week after search warrants were served in the Peter Frank case, leave the district with a sizable contract severance upset him.

“Having him walk away with a check before victims are even mentioned, I felt dehumanized,” Tomaselli said.

He said it illustrates how he believes the district is putting concerns about civil suits and other matters ahead of the victims themselves.

“I felt they didn’t see me as a person. They saw me and the other victims as just a lawsuit. Just some legal consequences to what happened.”

“Whenever victims are mentioned by the school board, it’s ‘alleged’ [victims]. We are not alleged. We are people. Who have been affected by this trauma. And calling us alleged is the same system that made it so easy for this to be swept under the rug in the first place,” he said.

Lea said he hopes this time the district’s promises — that the issue will truly be dealt with, and that “this won’t happen again” — will ring true.

“Think about if this had happened 20 years ago, how many people would have avoided being in a situation if this had happened 20 years ago,” he said. “I hope we get it right this time, as right as we can.”

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.

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

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