Former principal says she investigated complaints against former NHCS teacher, testimony in question as civil trial approaches
NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - A judge will decide whether testimony from a key witness will be heard during the trial of the civil lawsuit against the New Hanover County Board of Education, former administrators, and former teacher Mike Kelly. The lawsuit alleges the district had knowledge of Kelly’s abuse of students for years before his arrest in 2018.
The witness, former Isaac Bear Early College High School Principal Matilda Gurley, testified during a virtual deposition in February. This is because the attorneys for the 14 plaintiffs in this case said Gurley would not be able to testify during trial because she now lives in Florida and her appearance at the trial is “highly unlikely.”
Gurley was the principal at Isaac Bear from 2008 to 2011 while Kelly was a teacher there. Gurley testified that she received complaints from parents and students regarding Kelly during that time.
According to a motion filed by the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Gurley said she was told to interview Kelly about the complaints, but received no training on how to properly do so. Gurley said she was unaware of Title IX requirements and did not know she was obligated to report sexual misconduct to law enforcement.
“Her testimony corroborates what was outlined in our complaint: That there was knowledge on the part of this district eight years before Mike Kelly was arrested, and many of our guys could’ve avoided any interaction with him had more been done at that time,” said Mary Charles Amerson, one of the attorneys representing the 14 anonymous plaintiffs in this case.
Gurley told attorneys that she contacted the New Hanover County Schools district office about “inappropriate jokes” Kelly had told students in the classroom. She also admitted to having conversations with former administrators Tim Markley and Rick Holliday, both defendants in this case, after Kelly’s arrest.
“It is a key deposition,” Amerson said. “We do have some corroboration with her deposition, but she is the key witness and so we would like to have her cooperation, but we are aware of the sensitivity of these issues in this case, and so we want to proceed in a safe manner for her.”
After the plaintiffs’ attorneys completed their questioning of Gurley during the February 17 deposition, the school board’s attorney, Deborah Stagner, began cross-examination. Around 90 minutes into Stagner’s questioning, all parties agreed to pause for the evening and resume the deposition on February 23.
According to the motion, Gurley’s attorney, Steve Wright, said his client would continue with the deposition when it resumed. However, Wright wrote in a February 20 email that Gurley would be unable to continue the deposition.
Wright later said he believed Gurley had been hospitalized. Amerson and her fellow representatives believe Gurley is unable to continue her testimony because of stress and mental health reasons related to her initial testimony.
“This subject — like a physical injury, emotional injuries, you risk the trauma, the re-victimization as you proceed through litigation,” Amerson said. “This is a difficult matter for not just our victims, obviously, but their friends and their family.”
The motion says Gurley found out during her testimony that another witness in this case had committed suicide a few weeks after her deposition. Amerson says this witness was related to one of the alleged victims.
Using Gurley’s Testimony
The plaintiffs’ attorneys have filed a motion saying they should be allowed to use Gurley’s testimony as evidence during the trial. Amerson says her team has made several attempts to contact Gurley and find a way to continue the deposition. The motion says the defendants’ lawyers have made no attempts to contact Gurley or her attorney.
Judge Phyllis Gorham will rule later this month whether Gurley’s testimony will be allowed during trial.
Attorneys are still waiting for a ruling on whether each of the 14 plaintiffs will be able to remain on the lawsuit. The school board argues the statute of limitations for 10 of the “John Does” has expired.
The defense recently filed a motion to continue the trial, which would cause further delay for a lawsuit that was first filed in July of 2019.
“We think their strategy is to delay, to delay, to hollow out our guys until they don’t have the fight left in them anymore,” Amerson said. “And so, it’s not surprising that they would do this from that strategy standpoint, but it’s disappointing.”
WECT reached out to New Hanover County Schools for comment, but the district said it cannot comment on any ongoing lawsuits.
This case is set to go to trial in September, with more than 60 witnesses expected to testify.
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