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PCS report alleges Title IX violations, safety issues on Topsail High School wrestling team

A shot of the brick Topsail High School building entrance on a grey day.
Pender County Schools
Pender County Schools has since reprimanded eight employees, including former coach Pete Smith, involved in the Topsail High School wrestling program.

Three months after Pender County Schools (PCS) dismissed wrestling coach Pete Smith, the school board has released a 212-page report on the wrestling program. The report states that Smith's alleged troubles with bullying, safety, and legal issues meant that PCS had grounds to not renew his contract.

Last February, Pete Smith's dismissal from his role as Topsail High School wrestling coach came as a shock to many parents. This week, PCS is finally explaining why.

On Tuesday night, the Pender County Board of Education released a 212-page report from the Raleigh legal firm Schwartz Law, who the board hired in March to investigate Smith's dismissal. The firm concluded that PCS had grounds to fire Smith.

The report contains allegations of money mismanagement, potential Title IX violations, potential liability issues, bullying, hazing and safety issues. But Smith says those allegations are missing crucial context.

The investigation

Since PCS hired the firm, Schwartz Law said that it has interviewed 41 individuals, including parents, staff, and students. The firm also reviewed hundreds of documents, including email and text correspondence, social media posts, county policy, and more. Their summary comes several weeks after their initial projected deadline of early April.

The report's findings range from legal troubles to interpersonal conflicts. Many of them, particularly the sections on bullying, hazing, and Title IX violations, are redacted. Head of communications Bob Fankboner told WHQR that the school district's attorney blacked out part of the report to protect employee confidentiality.

"The board is taking this unprecedented step to ensure we can maintain the confidence of our constituents, and help all stakeholders understand the seriousness with which the board has confronted this situation," Board Chairman Don Hall stated.

The findings

The report acknowledged Smith's status in the Topsail High School (THS) community as a "revered" wrestling coach, but detailed Smith's conflicts with administrators and district policy.

"Smith's actions created an environment on the wrestling team that, at times, jeopardized students' safety and well-being, called into question Coach Smith's ability to properly handle school finances, and potentially exposed the district to liability and NCHSAA [North Carolina High School Athletic Association , Incsanctions]," it reads.

Several administrators said Smith failed to submit paperwork in accordance with school policy. For example, the report stated Smith allowed Irontide Wrestling Club, a private club he founded in 2022, to host practice from the THS cafeteria without submitting a proper facility use agreement. In doing so, the firm alleged, he opened the district up to major legal issues.

"Had an Irontide wrestler or anyone else been injured while Irontide was using the THS facility, the District could have faced substantial potential liability," the report reads.

The report also described health and safety risks on the team. Some wrestlers were allowed to practice without getting physicals beforehand, which violates NCHSAA policy. Some assistant coaches were allowed to participate without completing mandatory trainings or background checks beforehand.

THS trainer Erin Kelly, who would provide treatment to injured students during practice, alleged that Smith told her to stop attending wrestling practices, calling her a "distraction" to the students.

"Because she was told not to attend practice," the report read, "Ms. Kelly recalled that wrestlers would drip blood across campus or limp into her office at times when they needed medical attention."

The firm also stated Smith might have violated Title IX. According to former THS athletic director Christopher McGee, Smith threatened to resign if THS forced him to teach girls how to wrestle. Smith allegedly said that as a middle-aged man, he wouldn't feel comfortable coaching girls.

"He felt that any misinterpretation of physical contact could ruin his life and businesses," the report read.

 Members of the Topsail High School Wrestling team pose with medal and signs in a school gym.
Pender County Schools
Coach Pete Smith, far left, did not get his contract renewed with Pender County Schools.

"Insufficient oversight"

Though the firm mainly focused on Smith, their report laid much of the blame on the THS administration.

"Compliance with these policies and procedures ultimately falls on the Athletic Director and Principal," they stated. "To whatever extent [the] administration felt that Coach Smith did not impose sufficient discipline, administrators bear their own responsibility for allowing that to happen."

Fankboner told WHQR that the school board has taken disciplinary action against eight THS employees, including Smith. McGee has since been demoted from athletic director to PE teacher. Smith's contract has still not been renewed.

Smith provided the following statement to WHQR:

“I wholeheartedly disagree with the overall assessment of the Topsail Wrestling Program as it was outlined in this recent report. Context matters. Any content presented in a specific narrative that conveniently leaves out pertinent information that would alter the interpretation of the content is what this report is riddled with, unfortunately. A snapshot of a 'fact' without the relevant and surrounding context can lead readers to an outcome that might otherwise be different if they knew all of the details about the story. There’s too much to unpack in this report, and I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Truthfully, I’m not sure it matters much anyway. The more I dig into this report, the more I expect to somehow be linked to the Kennedy assassination as well!

The opinions that matter are of those who are members of the wrestling team, their families, and the wrestling community at large. Their unprecedented and overwhelming support speaks volumes about what actually took place over the past three years. In an era where parents are often the driving force behind the removal of coaches, the athletes and parents of the Topsail Wrestling Team were the driving force to keep me as their coach because of the positive difference this program made in the lives of the student-athletes. Ultimately, that’s the story that should have been told.”

Read the PCS report in full below.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.