Lawsuit highlights larger scope of alleged abuse by New Hanover County Schools staff

New plaintiff alleges Kelly drugged and raped him, included other adults in the sexual abuse
Lawsuit highlights larger scope of alleged abuse by New Hanover County Schools staff
Updated: Jun. 15, 2021 at 3:54 PM EDT
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Over the last several years, WECT has been following the developing story of students in the New Hanover County school system alleging sexual abuse by educators in the school system. The arrest of high school science teacher Michael Kelly in 2018 captured the community’s attention. What began with one parent discovering porn on their son’s phone that linked back to Kelly, would eventually result in Kelly pleading guilty to abusing 15 young men over the course of his 25 year career with the county school system.

A civil lawsuit against Kelly and the New Hanover County School Schools System, filed by some of the victims from the criminal case, is now proceeding through the court system. Other former students who did not participate in the criminal proceedings against Kelly have since come forward to allege he also abused them, and joined the list of plaintiffs in the civil suit. The plaintiffs attorneys say they suspect “many more [victims] remain in the shadows, afraid to come out, and just hoping that they will not have to relive the trauma that Kelly left behind.”

A third amended complaint in the lawsuit, filed in May, details the allegations of the three newest plaintiffs to join the lawsuit. Their claims are some of the most alarming to date. All the plaintiffs are listed by pseudonyms in the lawsuit to protect their identities, due to the nature of the alleged crimes and the fact that they were minors when they claim the abuse occurred.

John Doe 13 was a student at Isaac Bear Early College High School (IBECHS) from 2009-2013. At the age of 13, while part of Kelly’s class, he says Kelly initiated inappropriate conversations on a wide variety of sexual topics. Within months, John Doe 13 claims that escalated to a “game” where Kelly would send him pictures of his penis.

According to the lawsuit, “Kelly asked John Doe 13 to send a sex video of himself and his girlfriend at the time for Kelly’s viewing. Kelly later viewed that video in a hotel room with another adult male.... Kelly also began to give rides to and from school to John Doe 13, a fact that was known to administrators. Specifically, John Doe 13 remembers the principal of the school told Kelly in 2009 or 2010 to stop giving rides to John Doe 13.”

Despite those orders, John Doe 13 claims Kelly continued to offer him rides, dropping him off just before campus. The accuser claims Kelly was aware he had a limited support network at home, with no alternative means of transportation. John Doe 13 was hopeful that his success at IBECHS would help him get into college and find a lucrative career.

“Kelly offered to provide tutoring and academic support for the boy in exchange for Kelly’s performing oral sex on John Doe 13,” the lawsuit reads. It adds that Kelly offered John Doe 13 alcohol to ease his nerves, and later spiked his drink, rendering him unable to resist Kelly’s sexual advances. John Doe 13 says Kelly then proceed to rape him.

According to the lawsuit, the sexual abuse continued on other occasions, with John Doe 13 being told that his success at IBECHS was dependent on his sexual relationship with Kelly continuing. While it does not go into to detail, the lawsuit also states that “Kelly included other adults in his sexual abuse and exploitation of John Doe 13.”

The lawsuit claims that around that time, which was in the spring of 2010, the mother of another student came forward to school administrators with concerns about Kelly and another male teacher at the school who (she claimed?) had physically assaulted her child.

The lawsuit states that the parent’s questions prompted the principal of the school to call John Doe 13 in for questioning about “whether anything inappropriate had ever occurred at the school.” However, the questions were so vague John Doe 13 wasn’t entirely clear what the principal was asking him. Additionally, the door to her office was open, so he was in earshot of others who could overhear the conversation, stifling his ability to detail the sexual abuse that he says was happening to him at the time.

John Doe 11, another plaintiff also added to the recently amended lawsuit, says he met Kelly in the summer of 2005, while he was completing service hours at the school. John Doe 11 said Kelly introduced himself, and initiated a relationship. Over the next year, John Doe 11 says he and Kelly spent more and more time together. The former student alleges Kelly began playing gay porn on school computers to watch with him. The lawsuit alleges the behavior escalated, and Kelly began groping John Doe 11, and bragging about his sexual conquests with other boys at the school.

“Kelly would tell John Doe 11 that he would never get caught and that because he was active and a large part of his church, no one would ever believe [an accuser],” according to the lawsuit.

John Doe 11 eventually enrolled in Kelly’s chemistry class, but began to struggle as the content grew more advanced.

“Kelly became more critical of the young man’s grades... and [said] it would be best if the young man would consider sleeping with Kelly.... Shortly after that, Kelly proposed taking John Doe 11 to a science fair out of town. He told John Doe 11 that they could have dinner together and then would sleep in the same room, in the same bed and could have sex,” the lawsuit reads.

To facilitate the out-of-town trip, the lawsuit says Kelly provided John Doe 11 with a fake permission slip. John Doe’s mother was suspicious about the trip, and contacted the front office, who confirmed to her that there was no field trip and the permission slip was fraudulent. According to the lawsuit, John Doe 11 was removed from Kelly’s class, but because former Laney Principal Rick Holliday did not document previous complaints victims and parents adamantly insist they made about Kelly, the principal at the helm in 2005 may not have known there had been concerns about Kelly’s behavior before. Kelly was allowed to transfer from Laney to Isaac Bear.

“Kelly told John Doe 11 that he and his mom had ruined him, that they had cost him his job and his marriage. He told John Doe 11 that he had retained the services of an attorney and was considering suing the family for defamation of character and would seek some $500k in damages. Kelly told John Doe 11 he was forced to resign from Laney following that incident,” the lawsuit reads. The following year, John Doe 11 says the stress from the incident prompted him to withdraw from school.

Several of the 13 John Doe’s listed in the lawsuit claim they have engaged in self harm or attempted suicide. Some dropped out of school before graduating, and all report that their experience with Kelly has traumatized them.

The lawsuit calls Kelly a “serial child molester” who was allowed to stay in the classroom despite his alarming behavior. He gained Teacher of the Year accolades in 2016, with a recommendation letter from Rick Holliday, who by that point was Deputy Superintendent of New Hanover County Schools.

“Defendant NHCBOE knew that by failing to take appropriate actions regarding allegations of misconduct by Kelly, that it was, in effect misrepresenting the safety of its schools to students.... [not] sharing material information with students and their parents concerning allegations about Kelly... only misled students and their parents.... about their safety with Kelly,” the lawsuit notes. “[The] defendants’ misrepresentations and omissions represent fraudulent concealment.”

Other teachers

In addition to detailing the specific allegations against Kelly by each plaintiff, the lawsuit makes detailed allegations about the patterns of mismanagement within the New Hanover County School system that they believe allowed the abuse to continue, and even emboldened it. While Kelly has garnered the most headlines, he was hardly the only teacher to have an inappropriate relationship with a student in the district.

“According to information learned during discovery in this case, another dozen school employees either resigned their positions or were terminated or dismissed over allegations surrounding sexual misconduct with students for the period between 1999 and 2018. This pattern must stop, the lawsuit reads.”

In 1993, the district amended its sexual harassment policy, and prohibited employees from being romantically involved with any student enrolled in New Hanover County Schools. Employees with knowledge of such a relationship were required to report them. And yet, romantic relationships continued.

In addition to extensive reporting WECT has done on the cases of Nicholas Oates, Peter Frank, Richard Priode, and Jessica Wishnask there have been other New Hanover County educators who have made the news since 1993, and other who did not make headlines but were still convicted of abuse.

Tara Erickson was convicted of two counts of felony indecent liberties with a student...following an incident in 2002 involving two students under the age of 16. She was a science teacher at Ashley High School, and had worked for the school system for just under two years before her suspension in June of 2002. She resigned the a week later. As part of plea deal, she was sentenced to community service and probation.

24-year-old Brian Reardon was arrested in 2010, accused of having a sexual relationship with a female student and soccer player at the time he was employed as a coach at Ashley High School. Reardon was convicted of taking indecent liberties with a student in 2011, and is now a registered sex offender.

Laney High School Assistant Principal Robin Lamberty resigned in 2011. She’d been suspended with pay at the end of her first year at the high school, after allegations surfaced that she’d had an improper relationship with a student. A sheriff’s department investigation found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing, but the school system continued its investigation until her resignation.

In 2012, Hoggard High School Football Coach Michael Supak was arrested for taking indecent liberties with a student. The victim said he forcibly kissed her on school grounds, and made sexually suggestive remarks. He was also accused of texting her and inviting to come to his house while his wife and kids were out of town. Supak later plead guilty to assault on a female and contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He was sentenced to three years of supervised probation.

The same year, former Roland-Grise Middle School teacher April Schaefer was arrested on charges of indecent liberties with a child, felony indecent liberties with a student, contributing to the delinquency of a juvenile and disseminating obscene material to a minor. She was convicted in 2014, and was later put on probation.

In 2015, Ashley High School Teaching Assistant Rebecca Morgan was fired from her job, after being accused of having sex with a 17-year-old student. Morgan was the student’s senior project advisor, and they ran into each other at a night club in downtown Wilmington before the relationship allegedly turned sexual. While the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office initiated an investigation, the student declined to cooperate. Morgan was never formally charged.

In July 2016, 45-year-old Trisha Rogers was arrested was charged with sex crimes against a 13-year-old student. Rogers was a student teacher for one semester at Murray Middle School, and previously served as a substitute teacher. She was charged with indecent liberties with a student, indecent liberties with a child, and solicitation of a child by computer. She was sentenced to eight months in prison, and is now a registered sex offender.

Laney High School English teacher Meredith Kokoski was suspended from her job after allegations in 2017 she’d had improper relationships with at least two students. Those allegations surfaced after she was arrested for DWI after police say she crashed her car into 3 parked vehicles in downtown wilmington.. The students would not cooperate with the investigation according to the New Hanover County Sherriff’s Office, and she did not face charges for the alleged relationship with her students.

On April 5, 2021, Noble Middle Schools Assistant Principal David Bostian fatally shot himself hours after he was arrested on allegations of having an inappropriate relationship with a former student in the 1990′s. The alleged victim recently came forward and told investigators with the New Hanover County Sheriff’s Office that she had a relationship for about two years with Bostian while she was a student at New Hanover High School.

On April 12, 2021, Ron Strickland was arrested, accused of decades old sex crimes against two students. The long time Hoggard High School Girl’s Volleyball Coach had been abruptly relieved of his duties earlier in the year, after allegations came in to the school system through social media. He is out of jail on bond awaiting trial, facing two counts of sexual activity by a custodian. The victims said they had an inappropriate relationship with him beginning around 1982 when they were 16 years old.

The lawsuit against New Hanover County Schools makes note of “inadequate training to recognize sexual abuse and/or creating an environment wherein employees do not report sexual abuse allegations against teachers for fear of retaliation or other consequences.” It says the NHCBOE “failed to prioritize the prevention and detection of sexual misconduct by teachers within the district....[and thus] created an atmosphere of acceptance and tolerance toward such suspected abuse.”

In 2001, the US Department of Education required each school district in country to have a Title IX coordinator. NHCS didn’t comply until 2004. They appointed Rick Holliday to the position, despite him having no formal training to take on that position. In fact, in 2020, the federal Office of Civil Rights found Holliday no real training resolving Title IX issues, even though he’d served in that role for 11 years when the complaint was lodged against him with the federal government.

“Despite the fact that the district was encountering a number of complaints and dismissals of teachers specifically related to sexual abuse of students, Holliday did not initiate any complaints whatsoever related to Title IX between the years of 2004 and 2012,” the lawsuit reads. Between 2012-2018, he initiated four reports related to sexual misconduct between teachers and students.

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