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NC Attorney General's office now reviewing investigative file on New Hanover County Schools

NHCS Facebook page

After three years, the State Bureau of Investigation has completed its investigation into potential failure to report and obstruction of justice. New Hanover County District Attorney Ben David and Sheriff Ed McMahon called for the investigation in the wake of the conviction of former teacher Michael Earl Kelly.

According to a spokesperson for Attorney General Josh Stein, “our office has now received the full file and will begin our review and take any appropriate action.” The AG’s office has not made any comment about what, if any, potential prosecution could come out of the investigative file.

The request for the investigation came on July 1, 2019, one week after Michael Earl Kelly pleaded guilty to dozens of sexual offenses against students and was sentenced to 17-31 years in prison. During his sentencing hearing, Assistant District Attorney Connie Jordan, one of Ben David’s top prosecutors, revealed Kelly had told law enforcement that New Hanover County Schools (NHCS) had investigated and cleared him of sexual misconduct allegations without ever contacting law enforcement — a violation of state law, if true.

David and McMahon’s request included investigating both ‘failure to report abuse or neglect’ and ‘obstruction of justice.’ David said at the time that “everyone in the community should welcome a thorough review of these troubling allegations by agencies with no local ties.”

The investigation apparently covered the district’s handling of complaints against Kelly and also former NHCS employee Nicholas Lavon Oates, who was accused of sexually assaulting a young student but died in jail while awaiting trial. In both cases, there were serious questions about whether top administrators knew about the misconduct of their employees but failed to act.

While the AG’s office did handle prosecution of former NHCS teacher Peter Michael Frank, it is not clear if the SBI investigation covered NHCS’s handling of allegations against him. The AG's office said "because the matter is ongoing, we’re unable to comment further on areas of investigation."

This can be confusing for some because David did call for the AG to handle prosecuting Frank, but for different reasons. David’s 2019 request didn’t cite a specific conflict and was instead aimed at maintaining community confidence — which had been shaken by the Kelly trial — in an investigation into allegations of coverup, negligence, or other wrongdoing by NHCS. In the Frank case, David specifically cited a conflict, namely that an employee in his office had been the first point of contact in the complaint against Frank. Further, while the SBI handled the investigation of allegations against NHCS before handing them over to the AG, the New Hanover County Sheriff's Office handled the investigation into Frank — which Attorney General Stein commended in a recent interview — before turning the case over to a state prosecutor.

Frank’s recent conviction came after a trial that included testimony about notes in his personnel file indicating NHCS was aware of ‘inappropriate relationships' with students but did not fire him. The attorneys handling two civil suits, one on behalf of Kelly’s victims, and one on behalf of Frank’s, indicated following the trial that they felt this was additional evidence in favor of their claims that NHCS had been negligent.

Whether the SBI included this in their investigation, and whether authorities will consider any such potential negligence as criminal failure to report or obstruction of justice, remains to be seen.

If the AG’s office determines there is sufficient evidence in the NHCS file to proceed with prosecution, it would assign a special prosecutor to the case.

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.