$5.75 million settlement reached in New Hanover County Schools sexual abuse lawsuit

New Hanover County Schools and the 14 plaintiffs in the lawsuit made the announcement in a joint press release on Friday, June 9.
Published: Jun. 9, 2023 at 3:13 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 9, 2023 at 6:11 PM EDT
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - The plaintiffs and the New Hanover County Board of Education have reached a $5.75 million agreement to settle a lawsuit regarding claims of sexual abuse done by former teacher Michael Kelly.

New Hanover County Schools and the 14 plaintiffs in the lawsuit made the announcement in a joint press release on Friday, June 9.

“The $5.75 million agreement will end the litigation against the Board for allegations arising out of Michael Kelly’s sexual misconduct. Kelly was a chemistry teacher who taught at both Laney High School and Isaac Bear Early College High School in Wilmington. The lawsuit was filed in July 2019 by both the Rhine Law Firm, P.C. and The Lea/Schultz Law Firm, P.C.” the announcement states.

Kelly was arrested in February 2018 after a parent found inappropriate pictures her son had been exchanging with Kelly. The earliest reported abuse happened over 20 years ago. Kelly pleaded guilty to 59 felony sex crimes in June 2019, and the suit was filed a month later.

“This settlement is fully covered with the district’s purchase of insurance and will not have an impact on our budget nor on the incredible work that happens in our schools on a daily basis,” said Board Chair Pete Wildeboer in the announcement.

The settlement also calls for the school to expand training for students, staff and administrators on recognizing and reporting sexual abuse. It asks the school to make a public report of its efforts to improve its Title IX compliance and sexual abuse prevention policies and practices.

“And even more important, it’s going to change behavior. It’s going to change what we’ve been dealing with in this community. No longer are we going to have a situation where a Title IX coordinator doesn’t know that sexual abuse is part of Title IX. No longer we’re going to have untrained teachers, we are changing behavior. This is the start,” Joel Rhine with Rhine Law Firm said.

Like you guys just said, it’s incredible to think that this happened in our own backyard. We hear about, you know, smaller situations happening elsewhere. But I mean, it happened right here in Wilmington, that’s the great part about it.

“The Board and Plaintiffs are finalizing the formal written agreement, and the lawsuit will be dismissed upon execution of the final document,” an NHCS announcement states.

The attorneys who worked on this case say this not only professionally impacts them, but also on a personal level.

Martin Ramey with Rhine Law Firm and Mary Charles Amerson with The Lea/Schultz Law Firm both have elementary-aged children in the New Hanover County school district. They say the settlement of this case makes the district a lot safer.

“As a mother, I’ve got young elementary school-aged kids, this, this means everything to me, so thank you to them,” Amerson said.

“I would also say thank you to them. I know it’s hard to imagine an attorney saying thank you to his clients, but because of them, they made this school system safer for my kids and finished second grade this year. And I can actually look forward to them going to school, going into third grade. This not happening [anymore]. This doesn’t need to be a worry. I hope and I think the board understands the seriousness of safety for our students. Dr. Faust once said that when we drop our kids off in the morning, we expect to pick them up in the afternoon, in the same condition. That’s what this is going to accomplish,” Ramey said.

Amerson also added that the victims should be applauded as heroes for their work to make sure there were programmatic changes.

“That makes the impact of today so much greater. Because it was a culture. It’s been a culture here for decades. And they will stop, they will be watching their back, they will be making sure they’re making improvements and changes in this district. And that is what the [victims] have wanted. And as an attorney, this is the best kind of work. This is where you see change and impact. And this is why we do what we do and why we become attorneys,” Amerson said.

Ramey says he hopes with the board of education’s cooperation in this settlement, New Hanover County Schools can become a role model to other districts too.

“I’m hopeful that with the school board’s cooperation in the settlement they will stand up and become a model for all school districts within the state of North Carolina, as to what should be done when you’re facing this issue, that no longer should we have predators in our schools, I think they have that opportunity. And we’ll be looking to work with them to make sure as parents, as members of this community and as school teachers and leaders that that happens,” Ramey said. “It’s probably the most difficult case I’ve handled. We had one suicide, we’ve had four years of hard-fought litigation, constantly worried about when our clients be tossed out of court, and what our clients even live. So, I’m very glad today to be able to tell them, we’re done, moving on,” Ramey said.

The Board of Education provided the following statement:

“In addition to the statements in the joint news release, the members of the New Hanover County Board of Education want to publicly acknowledge the suffering that the John Doe plaintiffs have endured as a result of Michael Kelly’s abuse and to express both our sorrow for that pain and our sincere hope that the resolution provided by the settlement agreement will support these young men in their healing process. The Board also reaffirms its commitment to continue improving its policies and practices in an effort to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again.”

You can find previous coverage of the lawsuit below: