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Finding Child Predators: NHC Schools "Multi-Pronged Approach" Still In Development

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, as Port City Daily reports, his contract lays out all kinds of reasons that he could be fired. One of those is immorality. And you could make an argument in a number of cases that he met the bar. Why did the board decide that there were no firing options?

LISA ESTEP:  Well, we felt like this was just the best way forward. You know, I get the public’s concern, and we could have gone through a protracted legal battle, and ended this in a very, rather contentious way. But I think we both felt that this was the way to be able to move this system forward and focus on what we needed to do.

RLH:  What is going to fundamentally change about how New Hanover County Schools deals with complaints about teacher behavior, especially teachers who prey on children?

LE:  Well, that's a discussion that we have been having. …One of the things that we did in our Title IX Committee was look at policy. So what's policy? Where do complaints go? Who do they go to? And we've been working on that for about the past 13 months. And who do we partner with in terms of student protections, in terms of training? Cause it's a multifaceted response.

One of the other things that we did was we instituted this online reporting system called Ethix360. And that online platform allows for those complaints to come in, get logged in, and then allow for a very coherent quick response to that complaint or concern. And then allows the dialogue back to the complainant. The complainants can be anonymous, can stay anonymous, but still have dialogue with the overall case manager to that complaint. So it's a much more cohesive system that allows for that concern to be addressed much more quickly.

RLH:  What about the complaints that were actually filed? Because this is what seems to be -- and correct me if I'm wrong here, but this is what seems to be the common thread with the offenders who've been arrested.  There were complaints filed even in the Peter Frank Case. And yet, it wasn't ever taken to the next level -- until it was.

LE:  Well, again, I can't address specific cases because of the ongoing litigation, so I'm not going to be able to address, I'm not going to be able to address that in particular. But what I can say to you is that we are going to be taking a look at, as I said on Friday, we are going to be taking a look at every single one of our personnel files. And what we are looking at being able to do is looking at an outside agency to do that or a third-party agency to be able to do that so that there is the assurance that it's not an internal investigation. But that we're also maintaining that confidentiality because these are personnel files.  Our teachers and our staff have that right to confidentiality.

So we're trying to, we're trying to work through how to do that in a way that those files are, are looked at to see if there are old complaints and if there is anything in there that we've missed.

RLH:  Lisa Estep, Chair of New Hanover County Public Schools, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

LE:  You’re welcome.  Thank you for having me.

The School Board meets Tuesday, Feb. 11 at 4:30 in a closed session.  Estep tells WHQR selecting the interim Superintendent is a possibility at this meeting, but that process could take longer.

Listen to the short version here.

Tim Markley, Superintendent of New Hanover County Public Schools, is exiting his job and his contract – with about two and a half years left and $228,000 in his pocket.  His resignation comes on the heels of several high-profile cases of sexual abuse of students by teachers. 

The school system is working out what to do next. 

One of the first steps, according to Board Chair Lisa Estep, is engaging a third party for a personnel investigation.  She says the conversation about how to deal with complaints of child predators has been underway for 13 months. 

With the school system now under fire, Estep says the Board is instituting a multi-pronged approach which includes looking through files for existing but unresolved complaints.

"We are going to be taking a look at every single one of our personnel files. And what we are looking at being able to do is looking at an outside agency to do that or a third-party agency to be able to do that so that there is the assurance that it's not an internal investigation."

Estep says confidentiality around personnel records is critical during this process.  She also says a new reporting app, Ethix360, allows anyone to lodge complaints anonymously and carry on an anonymous conversation during the reporting process.  

Rachel hosts and produces CoastLine, an award-winning hourlong conversation featuring artists, humanitarians, scholars, and innovators in North Carolina. The show airs Wednesdays at noon and Sundays at 4 pm on 91.3 FM WHQR Public Media. It's also available as a podcast; just search CoastLine WHQR. You can reach her at rachellh@whqr.org.