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Superior Court Judge holding hearing on NHCS civil cases brought by victims of Kelly and Frank

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WHQR

This coming Thursday, Superior Court Judge Phyllis Gorham will review the status of two civil lawsuits against New Hanover County Schools involving the child sexual abuse crimes of former district teachers Michael Earl Kelly and Peter Michael Frank.

Over the last several years, survivors of both Kelly's and Frank's abuse — crimes for which both have been convicted and sentenced — and alleged abuse by Kelly against victims not involved in his criminal case — have filed suit against the district, former superintendent Dr. Tim Markley, and former deputy superintendent Rick Holliday. The cases also name the New Hanover County Schools district as a defendant — alleging that NHCS and top administrators, most having since left, were negligent in allowing Kelly and Frank to abuse students.

Some of those allegations — of failure to report and obstruction of justice — were part of a three-year investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation. The case file of that investigation was recently turned over to the office of North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein.

The Rhine and Lea/Schultz law firms are representing both the John Does and Jane Does in these civil suits.

Gorham’s decisions on June 30

Earlier this year, lawyers for the district, Holliday, and Markley asked Judge Gorham to dismiss their civil case as a result of changes to the statute of limitations — which she could rule on this coming Thursday. Additionally, Gorham could rule on the scope of the John Does independent medical exams, which she’s already allowed to proceed, and whether the expected trial date will remain September 26 — attorneys for NHCS have asked the court to delay the trial, a request the plaintiffs' attorneys are strongly against.

Related: Deep Dive: In heated, three-day court battle, NHCS tries to block Kelly’s victims from suing

She’ll also decide on whether separate litigation can move forward against the district and former teacher Peter Michael Frank, who was recently sentenced to 50 years in prison for child sex offenses.

Lawyers for Rhine and Lea/Schultz, are also asking Gorham to dismiss the class action suits in the Frank case. In a court filing on June 13, the law firms did say, that there was another fourth potential victim of Frank, but “at this time, that individual is a minor and counsel does not plan to file suit. In any event, the minor would have until the age of 28 to bring a suit and would not be prejudiced by the dismissal of the class action.”

Attorneys have already made a similar motion regarding the Kelly civil case.

Related: Plaintiffs’ attorneys in NHCS civil case motion to dismiss class-action allegations

Attorneys are also asking for a procedural move, consolidating two separate civil cases — Jane Does 1 and 2, and Jane Doe 3 — into one action under Gorham’s jurisdiction.

John Does speak about trauma

In a video presentation focusing on the John Doe survivors, provided by the Rhine and Lea/Schultz law offices, the plaintiffs' attorneys have built a record of the John Does and their families stating that they tried to contact administrators, in particular, Rick Holliday about Kelly’s inappropriate behavior and sexual abuse.

Most of the John Does said in the presentation that they were vulnerable and moldable in high school — and that Kelly took advantage. Further, some of the John Does said they had problems at home, which Kelly exploited.

They also detailed all the harm they perceived Kelly to have caused — some of them suffering from enduring trauma that has lasted over 20 years, some of them saying they've even engaged in self-harm.

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

Of the 14 John Does in the Kelly suit, at least 12 suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, at least 6 have attempted suicide, and an additional 3 or more have had suicidal ideations, according to the plaintiffs' attorneys.

In the video, Dr. Julie Medlin, a forensic psychologist working for the law firms, said childhood sexual abuse has the ability to change a person’s life trajectory — and that as a result some of the John Does would perform poorly in school and make the decision not to attend college.

Essentially, their lives have “become derailed”: some will self-medicate with alcohol and drugs and struggle with emotional regulation. These survivors shared their issues maintaining healthy relationships, marriages, and holding down careers because of Kelly’s abuse when they were children.

One of the survivors said it took intensive counseling to “not hate himself.” Another along those lines, said, “I sometimes blame myself for the abuse, but I know rationally that doesn’t make sense.”

Dr. Lenore Walker, another forensic psychologist who works with the firms, said the John Does want to testify in order to hold the district responsible, despite this being a hard road for them.

“Whatever the results of the lawsuit, the fact that they were strong enough to speak out is very important for them,” said Walker.

The survivors said they want financial support for the trauma they’ve endured — and want assurances that the district will never allow this abuse to happen again.

One survivor said he’s asking the district to “do the right thing,” being that it provides the financial resources necessary so they can get the help they need to manage their lives.

Another John Doe said that the district needs to show a real commitment "to do better," and that board members and district staff don’t make meaningless political speeches about protecting students.

After the public outcry over the Kelly and Frank cases, the district has implemented a Title IX department with three full-time employees, and a Title IX committee, and has implemented new policies, procedures, and training for district staff and students.

The Title IX department, which deals with claims of sexual harassment and abuse, also has programs like Bringing in the Bystander, Safer Smarter Kids, Darkness to Light, Shifting Boundaries, and Mental Health First Aid.

The district has also instituted Ethix 360, a secure, anonymous 24/7 reporting system accessible online, and a Say Something app, which is also another anonymous reporting tool.

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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