Four years after teacher sex scandal revealed, no resolution in criminal investigation of school administrators

What started with one teacher’s arrest for sex crimes against a student morphed into the arrest of several other teachers for similar crimes
Published: Feb. 28, 2022 at 2:41 PM EST
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NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - A criminal investigation has dragged on for years following one of the biggest scandals in New Hanover County history.

Victims and the community at large are still waiting to find out if school administrators will be held criminally liable following accusations they failed to report suspected sexual abuse of their students. What started with one teacher’s arrest for sex crimes against a student morphed into the arrest of several other teachers for similar crimes. It led to a growing chorus of people saying the abuse had been going on for years and administrators knew about it, but failed to stop it.

High school science teacher Michael Kelly was arrested in February 2018, after the parents of one student found disturbing images on their son’s phone, and realized he’d been exchanging nude photos with Kelly. In the following months, more than a dozen other students and former students would come forward to say they’d also been Kelly’s victims. The allegations ranged from Kelly showing them porn in class to Kelly sexually assaulting them both on and off school grounds.

New Hanover County Schools quickly terminated Kelly and assured the public they’d never received a single complaint about Kelly, who was a former Teacher of the Year. But parents and former students came forward to WECT with a very different story, saying they’d gone to administrators decades earlier to complain he was being sexually inappropriate with students. One parent had even saved a copy of her complaint against Kelly. The schools claimed to have no record of her complaint, but the original copy was later found at Central Office during discovery for a lawsuit filed by sex abuse victims.

On June 25, 2019, Kelly pleaded guilty to dozens of sex crimes against his students. During his hearing, prosecutors said in open court that Kelly admitted he’d been previously investigated for complaints of sexual misconduct by school administrators, and cleared of any wrongdoing. Less than a week later, New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David requested the North Carolina Attorney General step in to investigate whether New Hanover County School administrators knew about the abuse and failed to report it.

Almost immediately, Deputy Superintendent Rick Holliday, who’d previously served as Kelly’s direct supervisor, announced his retirement. Several months later, Superintendent Tim Markley and Human Resources Director John Whelmers also resigned. All had been under intense scrutiny for failing to stop the sexual abuse of students that went on for years.

In the months following Kelly’s arrest, the arrests of teachers like Nicholas Oates and Peter Frank for alleged sex crimes against their students heightened the public outcry.

Despite intense public interest, years have passed with no resolution to the criminal investigation into administrators’ alleged failure to act after being made aware of concerning behavior between teachers and students. Under North Carolina law, public employees are required to report suspected crimes against children to law enforcement. The pandemic was initially blamed for the slow pace of the investigation, but that explanation is no longer sufficient for some of the people waiting for answers.

The State Bureau of Investigation and the NC Attorney General’s Office tell WECT News the investigation is ongoing.

“Our office is reviewing materials from the SBI as they arrive. As you may have seen in the public filings in the civil case, waiting to obtain the depositions and have them compiled has also been a lengthy necessity. Our office will take the time necessary to conduct a thorough review. We have also been proceeding forward in the case of State v. Peter Frank, which is set for trial on 5/9/22. We hope to have the matter concluded as soon as possible,” NC Attorney General Josh Stein’s spokesperson Nazneen Ahmed told WECT when asked for an update on the case.

District Attorney Ben David told WECT he is ethically prohibited from commenting on a pending case, but he has urged state officials to expedite the investigation so that the public can learn whether school administrators are criminally negligent for their role in the sex scandal. While he could not comment, he lobbied for the release of his correspondence, requested by WECT as part of a public records request, with state agencies in this matter.

The correspondence, just released to WECT by the Administrative Office of the Courts, shows that a year after the investigation started, David began advocating for a conclusion to the investigation.

“My office is once again being asked by the press to make a comment... about why we failed to act [in the Nicholas Oates case], when in truth we were never notified by the SRO about the allegations. I understand our ethical obligations about remaining silent [while] an investigation is pending.... Any insight when we might be getting a conclusion on the investigation?” David wrote to NC Department of Justice Attorney Leslie Cooley-Dismukes on August 7, 2020.

With the lack of resolution to the investigation, some community members have attacked David personally in widely circulated emails, publicly calling for him to be removed from office for dereliction of duty.

On October 22, 2020, after critics again publicly accused him of misconduct for failing to carry out his duties to protect children, David reached out to Cooley-Dismukes a second time for help. “Any word on when that investigation may be concluded so that we can finally set the record straight?” he asked in an email.

On February 1, 2021, David wrote Cooley-Dismukes for at least the third time, hoping for a conclusion to the investigation.

“I am eager to respond to the unfounded allegations against members of my office but cannot while this investigation is pending,” David wrote.

“The SBI has not yet concluded their investigation. As you know, and I have tried to explain to [David critic Dante Murphy], I cannot assess the situation until I have the full SBI report. I met with them last week and they are making progress. The case involves the review of thousands of pages of School Board records and I only have one Agent, who is working diligently. I hope that we can wrap this up soon. I know you would like to be able to defend yourself and your office appropriately. I will keep you posted as we progress,” Cooley-Dismukes responded.

A full year since that e-mail exchange, the public still waits for answers. Nicholas Oates died in jail while awaiting trial, and his accusers never got their day in court. There is some hope that information will be revealed during the Peter Frank trial scheduled for May.

Meanwhile, the civil lawsuit against the New Hanover County School board is ongoing, set to go to trial in September. It was filed by more than a dozen former students who say they were abused by Mike Kelly, and that school administrators failed to protect them even after being made aware of Kelly’s concerning behavior.

The plaintiffs in that case have several hurdles to overcome. The schools’ insurance company is claiming they are not liable for many of the claims contained in the lawsuit, detailing their position in court documents filed just last week. Motions in that case are set to be heard on March 8.

A state court of appeals panel also complicated matters when they recently ruled that a law extending the statute of limitations for victims of sex crimes in North Carolina is unconstitutional. The disputed law had given several of the plaintiffs in the case, who are now in their 20s and 30s, the opportunity to join the lawsuit. Attorneys say the recent ruling will likely be reconsidered by the State Supreme Court.

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