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Child Sex Abuse in New Hanover County Public Schools RTDNAC 2020

peter_frank_roland_grise_ms_mug_jan_2020_0.jpg
Peter Frank, band teacher at Roland-Grise Middle School in New Hanover County, was arrested on charges of child sexual abuse.

New Hanover County Public Schools is facing a crisis of public confidence.  On Friday, Feb. 7th, Superintendent Tim Markley announced his resignation with a separation agreement that gives him $228,000.  That’s slightly less than half the value of the remainder of his contract.  The move comes after three high-profile cases of alleged sexual abuse of children by teachers. 

WHQR caught up with Board of Education Chair Lisa Estep.

RLH:  People want some kind of answer to why Markley couldn't be fired when his contract lays out all kinds of reasons that he could be fired. One of those is immorality. Could you make an argument in a number of cases that he met that bar?

Lisa Estep:  Well, we felt like this was just the best way for, as you know, I, I get the public concern and we could have gone through a protracted legal battle and ended this in a very, um, rather contentious way.

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The New Hanover County School system is facing at least two lawsuits and multiple questions about an alleged failure over decades to protect children from sexual predators. When he took the post, his interim superintendent in February, Dr. Del Burns understood his top priority as the development of more effective protocols for complaints and misconduct.

RLH:  If a child, for instance, felt uncomfortable around a particular teacher, you know, there's a power dynamic there. What can the child do?

Dr. Burns:  Yeah, there are several things that a student could do. They could go into or their parents go into Ethix360 and file a complaint...

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RLH:  From WHQR Public Media in Wilmington, North Carolina, this is CoastLine.  I'm Rachel Lewis Hilburn. 

Paul Gauguin, the French artist of the late 19th century routinely had sexual relationships with children and painted nude portraits of his victims. The New York times reports that museum curators, other artists and social activists have over the last several years, asked the Woody Allen question about Gauguin:  can you abhor the person and appreciate the art?

Prince Andrew announced earlier this week, he's stepping away from his Royal duties. After an interview with the BBC...

Michael Kelly worked in New Hanover County Public Schools for more than two decades and pled guilty earlier this year to 59 charges related to child sexual abuse. Nicholas Lavon Oates died in early November while awaiting trial for molesting a student at Myrtle Grove Middle School...

RLH:  I want to paint the picture of what a child sexual abuser looks like, because when I think of someone who perpetrates this kind of thing, I think of a white guy who's middle-aged, has kind of greasy hair and dirty glasses, and it looks creepy.  Amy Feath, how close am I?

Amy Feath:  My gut reaction was good luck trying to paint the picture of what that child sexual predator looks like because they look like all of us, anyone sitting in this room, anyone sitting in your school classroom in your, in your, um, parish, in your, in your neighborhood association.  And it could be a man or a woman. Any socioeconomic background is what our, our history tells us what our experience tells us. Any racial, ethnic background, any religious or, um, you know, affiliation, background, or non affiliation background.

RLH:  Michelle Zapple, you've had Carolina Gymnastics Academy for many years. And you've had your encounters with people that you've wondered about, but tell us how you protect children in your care. What are some of the basic rules?

Michele Zapple:  Well, in terms of what most people think of when they're thinking about gymnastics, they think about the coaches. And so we do background checks and those are, um, they're better than they used to be, but they're not foolproof. The background check is only going to alert me to somebody who has already come in contact with law enforcement and either been arrested or convicted. Um, and most people, that's not most people who are applying for a job.

RLH:  Why is it the popular teacher or the popular coach or the pastor Amy Feath?  Why don't kids get the hackles going up on the back of their neck around these people?

AF:  I think that a child predator, oftentimes is there, the gift that they have is that gift of being able to disarm the alarms that are not in the child victim first and primary, because for children, especially in our society, the alarm you have to disarm first is community adults around the immediate child and then the child. And so once we've gotten through community into a school setting or into a, um, athletic setting or into a church setting, now you've got the community's buy in. Then the reverence that the adults around the child pay to whoever that adult is. And however they see that adult is also going to disarm the alarms even further.

RLH:  You also play a role on a Title IX committee for New Hanover County Public Schools. This committee was formed in response to a number of different cases involving different people, but Michael Kelly is probably the highest profile. And this is a person who was a teacher in the school system for more than a couple of decades who routinely engaged in abusive, sexually abusive behavior with kids.

AF:  Yes. And I would just caution those listening that when you focus on the ones that we are talking about, there are lots that I'm not as worried about the ones that we have already identified as a community and held accountable as a community.

RLH:  But he's such a good example though, because he existed in this community for so many bloody years and he was a popular teacher.  But there were parental complaints -- so what happened there?

AF:  So oftentimes what I have seen over the course of my career doing this work for 30 years is that we get as a community a little bit less concerned about the actual individual survivor of a, of an, of an issue, because there is a larger entity that we're worried about their reputation, or we're worried about how that appears or how, how has our university looked at how has our church looked at? And I think that, um, those are very natural protections, but I think the mandated reporting law that we have in North Carolina is a perfect example of how, if you follow it, you can really, in essence, be doing your due diligence. I always say to our team, I'd rather report it and be wrong a million times than to not report it.

AF:  It is not my job, even at the Carousel Center. And we're a child advocacy center. We're not the experts and determining, does it meet the threshold of child abuse? According to statute, we have an entity whose job it is. There is a criminal piece and there's a child protective piece. Both of them have investigators that are to determine the elements that create that, that rise to that level of criteria. And so I think in cases like Mr. Kelly's case, I feel like where we fail is we're looking at a broader sense of trying to protect an entity rather than a very simple following of what is already a part of our community fabric that we're afraid to follow for many reasons, going back to the Kitty Genovese situation of, I don't want to be involved.

RLH:  You know, you mentioned that you'd rather be wrong a hundred times and report and let the proper entities figure out whether criminal behavior has occurred. Michelle Zapple, it's not easy. I mean, you are the owner of a business and you deal with kids all day long. And so you see all kinds of people and all kinds of situations. What's at risk for you when you report?

MZ:  Well, to make a report, say to DSS, it's not done frivolously.  Parents shouldn't be afraid that, you know, people are just willy nilly calling them and making a report.

RLH:  And to be clear, this is anonymous. So supposedly there's no risk, but there is a risk.

MZ:  Yes. But if I'm making a report, I'm usually not anonymous. I don't worry about that.  I consider the impact on the child and the family.  I consider that DSS and law enforcement and the court system all have different levels of proof. And that they're constrained by those standards. And I also consider if a parent suspects me as being the one to report, they do retaliate and they retaliate with physical threats, with verbal.

RLH:  You've been physically threatened?

MZ:  Yes -- with verbal intimidation and with threats to your reputation.

RLH:  One of the things that adults need to teach their kids is never to keep secrets. There's something wrong if an adult ever asks a child to keep a secret.  What else, what should people be thinking about for the holiday season? Happy Thanksgiving, by the way...

AF:  That children own their bodies and that they shouldn't be forced to hug or kiss.

RLH:  Even if it's grandma...

AF:  Even if it's grandma, it's still teaching that child that you have the right, if you don't feel like it, that you can, that you can say no to a hug or a kiss. 

RLH:  And that's this edition of CoastLine... Amy Feath, Michele Zapple...