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New Hanover school board could move to dismiss some civil case victims after state law struck down


On Monday, a three-judge panel struck down parts of North Carolina’s ‘SAFE Child Act’ that temporarily lifted the statute of limitations for the victims of sexual abuse and allowed them to file civil suits. That could have a significant impact on the current civil case against New Hanover County schools.

The ruling came as judges heard a case against the Gaston County Board of Education and a former employee. As with the civil case against New Hanover County Schools (NHCS), the employee had already been convicted — but the abuse had taken place over a decade earlier.

Prior to the passage of the SAFE Child Act, these plaintiffs would have been 'time-barred,' meaning the statute of limitations for filing civil suits would be already passed.

The law passed unanimously in 2019, with bi-partisan support. But the panel's 2-1 ruling this week found that the state constitution bars the legislature from reopening the statute of limitations. The ruling was written almost remorsefully, with judges stressing they were bound by precedent, and suggesting that the state Supreme Court would be better equipped to take up the issue.

The ruling will have a significant effect on the civil case filed against New Hanover County schools on behalf of the victims and alleged victims of former teacher and convicted sexual abuser Michael Earl Kelly.

Martin Ramey, a lead attorney for the plaintiffs, called the ruling an injustice — but that the civil case against NHCS would continue.

"Well, first, the fight isn’t over. This is going up and all the way to the state Supreme Court," Ramey said. "If the ruling is ultimately upheld, it means that lots of survivors everywhere – no matter whether the abuse occurred in a school, in a church, in a YMCA, etc. would be thrown out of court. When you think that the median age of a sexual abuse survivor to come forward is 52, you can see the injustice this ruling carries."

Ramey noted that, in other states, so-called 'revival statutes,' which essentially reopen the window for filing civil suits, had been challenged and ultimately upheld as constitutional. Still, Monday's ruling will have an impact on his case for those victims.

"For the New Hanover cases, there is no question that if the Supreme Court upholds this ruling, then multiple victims will be dismissed from the case, but not everyone. We would continue to prosecute the case against the school board until this is resolved by a jury," Ramey said.

Many have noted that the revival statutes increase the government's legal liability significantly — there are untold millions of dollars in settlements and judgments that could be paid out by schools boards across the state. But Ramey said the case is not about money — although he said his clients do need counseling and therapy they cannot afford on their own — but about forcing accountability and change in the district.

According to Ramey, NHCS has indicated it plans to move quickly to dismiss the claims of those victims would be time-barred without the SAFE Child Act.

Asked about the board's intentions in the case, newly-minted Board Chair Stephanie Kraybill issued a short statement: "The New Hanover County Board of Education was just informed of this ruling and will need time to analyze the decision."

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.