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NHCS civil suit: A 'missing' document uncovered, new allegations explained, and plaintiffs share their psychological struggles

From the third amended complaint in the civil suit against NHCS.
Ben Schachtman
From the third amended complaint in the civil suit against NHCS.

The latest filing in the civil suit against New Hanover County Schools and former teacher Michael Earl Kelly includes three new plaintiffs, new allegations, and new documentation — including a parent's complaint from 2003, one the district initially said it didn't have a record of.

Editor's Note: This story discusses sexual abuse of children and may be disturbing to readers and listeners.

In June 2019, former New Hanover County Schools teacher Michael Earl Kelly pled guilty to 59 counts of felony sex crimes against students. His crimes against high school boys, those who attended Laney High School and Isaac Bear Early College High School (IBECHS), went on for more than a quarter-century. Kelly was given a 31-year prison sentence, which he’s serving at Pasquotank Correctional Institution in Elizabeth City, North Carolina.

During the sentencing hearing, a prosecutor revealed to the court that Kelly had admitted to the FBI that he had been investigated, and cleared, by the New Hanover County Schools district -- which had not notified local law enforcement.

That opened the door to a pending class-action suit brought forth on behalf of at least 13 plaintiffs, granted anonymity by the court and known as John Does 1-13; these include victims that Kelly admitted to assaulting and those whose allegations have not yet been tried in court. The suit is filed against Kelly, the New Hanover County Board of Education, former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday, former Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley, and Mike Roes 1-10 (names that act as placeholders for people who are also allegedly responsible for John Does’ injuries and losses).

Recently, the Rhine Law Firm, P.C, and the Lea/Schultz Law Firm, P.C. filed a third amended complaint in Superior Court against the defendants, adding John Does 11, 12, and 13. Thus far, ten of the John Does who are part of the suit experienced abuse or alleged abuse by Kelly at Isaac Bear and three attended Laney. Details of their claims and allegations come from tens of thousands of pages of documents gathered by the two law firms, as well as over a dozen depositions (formal interviews that are admissible in court) taken so far, with many more planned.

Third Amended Complaint, Rhine Law Firm; Lea/Schultz Law Firm

The Amended Complaint: New Allegations Against Kelly

Martin Ramey is the Rhine Law Firm, P.C. lawyer representing John Does 1-13 in the class action lawsuit. He said in this third complaint that there are three new John Does (11, 12, 13) that have since joined the suit. The plaintiffs are using these names, Ramey said, to protect their identities as not to cause more trauma, because according to this complaint, “several have reported suicide attempts and even more report suicidal ideation as a result of Kelly’s abuse.”

John Doe 11 was a student who went to Laney High School from 2004 to 2007. According to the complaint, he was a lab assistant for Kelly, and through that role, Kelly started the grooming process with him.

According to Darkness to Light, one of the leading non-profit advocacy groups to educate the public about ending child sexual abuse, grooming “allows the offender to slowly overcome natural boundaries before the sexual abuse occurs,” and that family and friends of the child can be trusting of the offender because they might be well-known or held in high regard in the community. For example, Kelly was named the 2016-2017 Teacher of the Year at Isaac Bear, and according to the complaint, Rick Holliday served as a reference for Kelly’s award, despite having allegedly heard complaints about Kelly’s sexual misconduct.

Ramey said that “Kelly began propositioning [John Doe 11] to have sex with him.” In the complaint, Kelly allegedly touched his genitals and kissed him. Ramey also said that Kelly “wanted to take the boy out of town to a science fair, which was pretty typical of Kelly’s victims. He did this with several boys, one-on-one situations where he’d be in a hotel room with them.”

But, according to Ramey, the mother of John Doe 11 called Laney’s front office to see if the trip was legitimate. She was then called in to meet the principal. Ramey said the mother reported that she was, “then ejected from the principal’s office.” After this complaint, John Doe 11 was then reassigned to another teacher. Ramey said this likely contributed to Kelly moving to another school: “Of course, this is around the spring of 2006, coincidentally, at that time, Kelly was applying for a transfer from Laney to Isaac Bear and then immediately began the same behaviors.”

Ramey said after this transfer, four years later, Kelly had another complaint against him in 2010, involving John Doe 2, possibly involving John Does 3 and 13 who were there at the same time. In the complaint, John Doe 2 was coerced into playing a game called, ‘bat’ from the movie, ‘Waiting…’. It’s a game described as flashing their genitals at one another. Ramey said, “there were two sets of complaints [one in 2006, one in 2010] that Kelly described as investigations to law enforcement, and Kelly claimed he was cleared of both investigations.”

John Doe 12 started attending Isaac Bear in 2015. In the complaint, he said he became a part of Kelly’s Snapchat group where the two had inappropriate discussions about sex. He was also asked to play the same ‘bat game.’ But one of the most “horrific incidents” involving Kelly that Ramey and his team have documented came from John Doe 13, who attended Issac Bear before John Doe 12 in 2009, three years after Kelly’s transfer from Laney.

In the complaint, it is alleged that Kelly masturbated with the child, gave him alcohol, and raped him. Allegedly, Kelly drugged the student’s alcoholic drink, incapacitating the child before sexually assaulting him; according to Ramey, it is believed this happened on more than one occasion.

Ramey also noted concerns about how students, including John Doe 13, were interviewed by administrators.

Ramey said John Doe 13 was standing in an office doorway being interviewed by the principal, with the receptionist and secretary nearby, about “anything inappropriate going on here with any teachers.” According to Ramey, “Most kids didn’t even know what she was alluding to. [The principal] had no training on how to conduct an investigation because the school never provided it.”

How Attorneys Gathered Evidence for Complaint — And Found A Mother's Previously 'Missing' Complaint

According to Ramey, this 91-page amended complaint is a result of a “great number of depositions” from John Does 1-13 and their families. Cornell Law Schooldefines a deposition as out-of-court sworn testimony of the events that occurred. Depositions are part of the‘discovery’ process which allows the parties in civil cases to gather information for a potential future trial.

While Ramey and his team are conducting depositions of witnesses, so too is the legal team representing the defendants. Ramey said he expects that by November, they will have completed about 60 of these depositions.

Besides the over 50,000 pages of mainly emailed documents, Ramey said that through this discovery process, the 2010 Isaac Bear investigation of Kelly’s sexual abuse came to light. Ramey said that administrators and faculty members sent memos about the alleged abuse of John Doe 2, which included information gleaned from interviews with students and parents. If Kelly was accused of exposing his penis to the students during the ‘bat game’, then that would have warranted a report to law enforcement, according to Ramey.

He also said that this 2010 investigation “wasn’t in [Kelly’s personnel file, instead, it was in an employee file that was kept at the school, [...] so it would have been there for each subsequent principal to see.”

This was also the case for documentation of inappropriate behavior by Peter Michael Frank, the former Roland Grise band teacher who was arrested last year on charges of sexual misconduct. Frank is currently being held in the New Hanover County jail on a $500,000 bond while awaiting trial; along with the district, he also faces a civil case similar to the one brought against Kelly.

The discovery process has also discovered another piece of evidence: a formal complaint against Kelly of which the district claimed it had no record -- and of which Holliday denied the existence.

The complaint dates back to 2001, when John Doe 7 and his mother were lodging complaints against Kelly to then Laney High School principal Rick Holliday, alleging that Kelly exposed himself to the student at the YMCA on Market Street. Not long after, another complaint surfaced from a different student and his family about Kelly engaging in “inappropriate sexual conduct and language, intimidation, and retaliation.” The mother of this student issued a formal written complaint on a New Hanover County Schools Parent/Public Concerns about School Personnel form in 2003.

Fifteen years later, after Kelly’s arrest, WECT asked Holliday about the complaint and other concerns about Kelly. Holliday told journalist Ann McAdams, “nothing like that ever happened.” The district said only that it only maintained records of complaints dating back to 2004, which was also the year Holliday moved to the district’s Central Office.

According to the third amended complaint, a copy of the complaint was located within the files from the Central Office produced during discovery.

What the John Does Say They Are Experiencing

At the end of every section detailing the alleged abuse of a John Doe by Kelly, there is a variation on the phrase, “John Doe was deeply traumatized by what happened to him, has suffered great upset and injury, sustained severe emotional distress, mental anguish, humiliation, embarrassment, shock, fright, and bodily injury.”

The complaint attempts to detail what that actually means.

In the complaint, five of the John Does admit to attempting self-harming practices, such as engaging in cutting. These injuries, listed in theDiagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, said these tendencies are a result of “emotional instability, unstable relationships and chronic feelings of emptiness.” Even John Doe 1 and 11 said they withdrew from school because of the abuse.

John Doe 1 said the reason for his leaving school: “He could no longer trust teachers and could not avoid Kelly’s ongoing harassment.”

The sentiments of John Doe 2 illustrate the lasting impact of this trauma: “He’s fearful that, if he were to ever have children of his own one day, that he could never protect them from predators like Kelly.”

According to the complaint, all the John Does suffer from some form of depression, anxiety, and/or PTSD.

Mary Charles Amerson, another attorney working on this case said, “there’s a lot more in the way of data in the way of additional injury, physical injury, what these kids are suffering from now that they’ve been assessed. There’s a lot of consistency between what they’re dealing with and what they will be dealing with long-term.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education’s 2017 ‘A Training Guide for Administrators and Educators on Addressing Adult Sexual Misconduct in the School Setting’, nearly “one in 10 students are subjected to adult sexual misconduct (ASM) by school personnel during the course of their academic careers.” This same report also stated that this abuse is “detrimental to children’s physical, psychological, and academic well-being, as well as to their behavioral development.”

Increasingly the research supports long-term cognitive and emotional damage that these students experience as a result of the abuse. Listed in the amended complaint is a 2019 study, ‘Long-term outcomes of childhood sexual abuse: an umbrella review,’ published in the scientific journal Lancet Psychiatry, found that this trauma can alter the person’s brain development, which may contribute to the development of depression and other mental health disorders.

The Amended Complaint: Cause of Action

The goal of the class action suit is to establish a common fund for the plaintiffs and will allow class members who are reluctant to be part of the suit to still receive compensation from this fund.

Third Amended Complaint, Rhine Law Firm; Lea/Schultz Law Firm

At the end of each of the suit’s nine allegations, the complaint listed that the “plaintiffs and the class are entitled to recover damages in excess of $25,000 from the defendants.”

The complaint specifically alleges that the New Hanover County Board of Education failed to protect students from Kelly, that they failed to conduct adequate investigations when they had evidence to show that he was a sexual predator. Holliday, Markley, and Mike Roes 1-10 are also accused of the same.

Additionally, the complaint said that the board knew that Holliday did not have the training to be named the Title IX Coordinator in 2004. It also documents that Holliday filed no official Title IX documentation from 2004 to 2012, and filed only 4 from 2012 to 2018, although the complaint alleges that, between 1999 to 2018, there were “at least 13 New Hanover County School employees that either resigned, were terminated, or were dismissed for sexual assault incidents affecting students” in the school system.

The defendants in the civil class action suit could reach a settlement with the plaintiffs or it could end up in a jury trial.

Statement from NHCS

As a matter of general policy, NHCS -- like many other government bodies — does not comment on pending litigation outside of formal legal fillings and the board has not offered much comment on the lawsuit since it was filed in the summer of 2019. The district did issue the following statement following the filing of the third amended complaint:

New Hanover County Schools understood since this lawsuit was filed that there may be additional students who come forward with claims, being a class action lawsuit. We are continuing to exchange and gather information with the previous plaintiffs and will now do so with the newest plaintiffs. The district expects to file a response on behalf of the school board and former Superintendent Dr. Tim Markley in the coming month.

Former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday, who is being represented separately from Markley and the district, has not responded to requests for comment; earlier this month, his legal counsel acknowledged WHQR's request but declined to make any comments on the case.

Below: The Third Amended Complaint filed in New Hanover County Superior Court. Warning — this filing contains material that many will find disturbing.

Rachel is a graduate of UNCW's Master of Public Administration program, specializing in Urban and Regional Policy and Planning. She also received a Master of Education and two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Political Science and French Language & Literature from NC State University. She served as WHQR's News Fellow from 2017-2019. Contact her by email: rkeith@whqr.org or on Twitter @RachelKWHQR
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.