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Why it's hard for New Hanover’s Board of Education to talk about alleged victims

The dais of the New Hanover County Board of Education.
Benjamin Schachtman
The dais of the New Hanover County Board of Education.

Earlier this month, Board of Education Chair Stefanie Adams took a moment during the regular meeting to address the arrest of two employees for sexual abuse of students dating back to the 1980s and 1990s. Some appreciated that she spoke up, especially as a contrast to the silence of previous boards. But others took issue with the fact that she made no mention of the alleged victims. The issue is, to say the very least, complicated -- and board members don’t all see it the same way.

The arrests of Ronnie Lynn Strickland and David Bostian, Jr. -- as well as Bostian’s subsequent suicide -- further disturbed a public that is still grappling with several other cases of alleged sexual abuse of students by New Hanover County School district employees, as well as the criminal conviction of a former teacher for over a decade of abuse. The pressure on the administration, and moreover on board members, to acknowledge the issue had no doubt become acute.

New Hanover County Board of Education Chair Stefanie Adams addresses the arrest of Ronnie Lynn Strickland and the arrest and death of David Bostian, Jr.

Adams began her comments by offering her “sincerest condolences” to the Bostian family, describing Bostian as a “educator with decades of experience” and “a father and a husband.” She then acknowledged the “shock and disbelief” that many must have felt after hearing of the latest arrests. She then turned to what the district is currently doing, touting new efforts, and saying “among all of the hurt, and the tragedy that we have experienced, some positive outcomes must emerge” (you can find a complete transcript of her comments at the end of this article).

Adams’ fellow board members Judy Justice and Stephanie Walker noted that Adams didn’t share her speech with them beforehand, and were frustrated that some may have taken her comments as being on behalf of the entire board. Neither took issue with Adams’ empathy for Bostian’s family, but both expressed disappointment that Adams never used the word “victim” and did not offer sympathy or an apology to those who were allegedly abused by Bostian and Strickland.

Asked about this pushback, Adams wrote in a statement, “my heart sinks, just like anyone else in the community, when I hear about the allegations against David Bostian and Ron Strickland. I have tremendous compassion for any victim of sexual assault or abuse and I respect the courage that it takes for survivors to come forward.”

However, Adams noted, “there have been no convictions yet, and when I address the public as the Board Chair, or just as a citizen of New Hanover County, I have to speak to the known facts and uphold the law, which assumes these men are innocent until proven guilty.”

That presumption of innocence has likely become difficult to maintain for some, after three years of allegations and arrests. While Adams spoke of “shock,” some were likely more saddened than surprised, feeling more depression than disbelief. Still, the troubling pattern that has emerged from NHCS doesn’t preempt due process; just because some may be more likely to presume Bostian’s guilt than his innocence doesn’t mean either can be decided outside of a court of law.

And therein lies the issue --- Bostian’s case will never be decided. For those, like his wife and family, who believe him to be innocent, his name will never officially be cleared. At the same time, the criminal investigation into his alleged crimes has been closed, as has any internal investigation at NHCS. North Carolina doesn’t allow posthumous prosecution; the District Attorney’s office considers Bostian’s case to be “abated by death.”

The ‘until’ the Adams spoke of will never come for Bostian -- and it will never come for those who alleged he abused them. But not all board members agree that means those alleged victims can’t be publicly acknowledged.

What can board members say? It depends who you ask

Board members Justice and Walker both disagreed with Adam’s interpretation of the issue of addressing allegations.

Asked if there was any way to address alleged victims, Justice said, “well, of course you can.”

Justice continued, saying based on her historical experience few would come forward, especially after many years, with a false accusation.

“Victims, the majority of people that speak as victims, have a reason to -- they are victims. Whether or not, well, in the case of the one employee that committed suicide, we'll never know, I wish that we were able to know. Because at this point, the woman, even though it's been 30 years, has obviously been suffering and she has been brave enough to speak out. And there's a lot of people across the county that are literally vilifying her and going after her questioning her [about] how long it took. But anybody that knows anything about trauma, and especially sexual assault, it can take decades for the victim to come forward,” Justice said.

Justice said that she’d never been counseled not to speak about alleged victims by NHCS legal staff.

“No one has ever told us not to come forward,” she said.

According to Justice and Walker, if there is a concern over future civil liability, it hasn’t been shared with all the board members. Walker said addressing allegations is up to their interpretation.

“I don't know if that's allowed or not. But what I've been finding out legally speaking, is that there's lots of ways to interpret things. And, you know, I, you know, what we're dealing with on the school board is a lot. And they're not all the same instances, and they're not all similar cases. But regardless, you can still feel for victims, you know, that doesn't mean that you're admitting someone's done something wrong, or like, you know, that you're doing something wrong, or the person has done wrong, if you just were saying that you feel for the victim," Walker said.

I just feel like people can express their concerns without making the district liable. But, you know, I've never seen anything different. So, if I'm wrong, I guess I'll find out.
Stephanie Walker, New Hanover County Board of Education

In the Bostian case, Walker -- who is herself a survivor of childhood abuse -- actually spoke to the alleged victim, who shared text messages between and Bostian that supported her story (as first reported in Port City Daily). Walker said she felt this gave her even stronger grounds to speak out.

“She reached out to me and I expressed my condolences to her. And I said because, I'm a fellow survivor...and whether it's right, legally, right or wrong legally, I tend to believe first, and that's not normally the practice. You know, a lot of people want to say, well, let's just do this ‘court of law law’ business. Well, honestly, I've seen this --- I've seen the back and forth discussion, she showed them to me. And I feel like she didn't... she deserves to have her say, and she doesn't deserve to be shamed," Walker said.

But for Vice-Chair Nelson Beaulieu, speaking directly about an alleged victim is still a tough issue. It’s been difficult for him, he said, since he feels he can no longer be outspoken in the way he was as a private citizen or even a candidate.

“I think it's very difficult. It's a very delicate balance. And I think you know, as a citizen, as a person, you wish that you could say any number of things on any number of topics. Because you used to be able to do that. And it's a fond memory to be able to hear about something in the news, or to be able to see something on social media, and say, ‘Hey, I have an opinion, I want to comment, I want to talk about it, because I feel very strongly about it,’” Beaulieu said.

Beaulieu noted there are also several laws protecting certain kinds of information in these cases. Deborah Stagner, who serves both as board attorney and as defense counsel in civil suits against the district, confirmed this. According to Stagner, allegations received by the district (as opposed to law enforcement) fall within personnel privacy laws. There are also laws that protect information about current and former student, Stagner said. As for specific guidance given to board members, Stagner said "[b]ecause of attorney-client privilege, I am not at liberty to comment on or share any specific guidance I have given to the Board."

While the laws Stagner cited don't appear to bar discussing allegations made as part of a criminal investigation and arrest, for Beaulieu due process remains an important counterbalance to wanting to address alleged victims.

“I would really like to be clear that I stand firmly behind and with any victim of sexual assaults. I admire those who have the courage to speak out, to bring these people to light. Any sexual abuse is completely, totally unacceptable and despicable, and must be addressed and weeded out,” Bealieu said.

Due process exists because when we are emotional, when we are upset, we don't always make good choices in the moment, and due process is designed to protect all of us. And sometimes it's frustrating, but it's important, and it's something I value.
Nelson Beaulieu, New Hanover County Board of Education Vice-Chair

Unfortunately, sometimes things fall through the cracks of due process -- and leave alleged victims in limbo.

Abated by death, under investigation, crawling through court

Bostian’s case is not the only alleged abuse investigation “abated by death.” There’s also Nicholas Lavon Oates, accused of sexually abusing a 13-year-old student. Oates died in New Hanover County jail, apparently as a result of a chronic liver issue; he’d been there for over a year, awaiting trial.

As with Bostian, there won’t ever be a verdict in the Oates case, no official ‘guilty’ or ‘innocent.’ To make matters murkier, troubling questions surrounding Oates’ hiring and eventual arrest remain unanswered. District Attorney Ben David has promised answers to some of the questions, but says for the time being his hands are tied while the State Bureau of Investigation pursues allegations of obstruction of justice and failure to report by NHCS administrators. That investigation was requested in the summer of 2019 and while the SBI confirms it is still ongoing, the Bureau has given no indication when it might conclude.

And so, for Oates’ alleged victim, no acknowledgement.

Then there are cases currently in the court system, namely former Roland Grise band instructor Peter Michael Frank and Ronnie Strickland. Eventually, they will make a plea during a hearing, or be found guilty or not-guilty during a trial. But the process could take a long time.

Even then, there could still be victims left in limbo. Take the case of Michael Earl Kelly, the former NHCS teacher who pleaded guilty to dozens of charges of sexual abuse of and misconduct with students. The district now faces a civil suit filed over Kelly’s abuses and failures to report or stop them. But, importantly, it’s filed based on both alleged incidents of abuse and those to which Kelly admitted in court.

The resolution of that case could lead to public acknowledgement of those alleged victims -- or it could lead to a settlement that admits no fault, and offers no closure.


Chair Stefanie Adams' comments:

I would like to just share a few words. I want to take a moment to address some of the incidents that have unfolded in our community over the last two weeks.

First, I want to offer my sincerest condolences to the Bostian family. David Bostian was an educator with decades of experience. But more importantly, he was a father and a husband. I can't imagine what his family is going through at this time, but I have seen the outpouring of support from our community. And I know that they will continue to do so as those close to David Bostian try to navigate through this difficult time.

Second, when it comes to the allegations against David Bostian and Ron Strickland, I want to acknowledge many of your feelings of shock and disbelief.

While I cannot speak to those incidents, specifically, due to ongoing investigations and employee records policies, what I want to address is what New Hanover County Schools is doing about it, and plans to do about it. Among all of the hurt, and the tragedy that we have experienced, some positive outcomes must emerge. Everyone within the district is working diligently to eradicate behavior that harms students.

In fact, recently, after reading comments on a social media post, one of our own board members took immediate action following up with Superintendent Dr. Charles Foust, who wasted no time in putting his team into action.

I also want to commend Dr. Foust for his willingness to take the necessary steps to critically examine and improve our district. Under his leadership, I am confident that we are seeing and will continue to see two very simple yet essential ideologies put into practice on a daily basis.

Those two things are setting expectations and holding people accountable. All of our educators need to know what the expectations are when it comes to reporting anything they see or hear as it relates to student safety. And then, if someone violates those expectations, everyone needs to understand they will be held accountable, no matter their position in the district. We expect everyone to report anything that feels suspicious and to allow the New Hanover County Schools administration to fully investigate. There is no excuse to keep information to yourself when it comes to the safety, emotional health and wellbeing of a child.

Furthermore, I look forward to new initiatives, training and internal communication processes, which will help keep our students safe. And finally, I want to thank everybody already doing those things. All too often we focus on the handful who are not following our procedures, but so many of you are already doing the right thing. And for that I have the utmost appreciation. Thank you.

Ben Schachtman is a journalist and editor with a focus on local government accountability. He began reporting for Port City Daily in the Wilmington area in 2016 and took over as managing editor there in 2018. He’s a graduate of Rutgers College and later received his MA from NYU and his PhD from SUNY-Stony Brook, both in English Literature. He loves spending time with his wife and playing rock'n'roll very loudly. You can reach him at BSchachtman@whqr.org and find him on Twitter @Ben_Schachtman.