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AG Stein says NHCS employees failed to protect children, but closes investigation without charges

Attorney General Josh Stein speaking at Coastal Horizons
Camille Mojica
Attorney General Josh Stein speaking at Coastal Horizons in Wilmington in 2023.

The state concluded a four-year investigation into the New Hanover County Schools district today. Attorney General Josh Stein said his office found evidence of wrongdoing, but that no charges will be filed due to the statute of limitations.

Update 5:30 pm: This article has been updated with a statement from District Attorney Ben David.

District Attorney Ben David called for the investigation in the summer of 2019, after former teacher Michael Earl Kelly pleaded guilty to dozens of charges of sexually abusing students. Kelly’s sentencing hearing revealed evidence that top school administrators had known about sexual abuse — but hadn’t reported it.

The State Bureau of Investigation worked the case for three years before turning it over to Attorney General Josh Stein’s office, which reviewed thousands of documents dating back to the late 1990s. Earlier this year, Stein told WHQR the case was "massive."

In a statement, Stein said that his office found evidence of wrongdoing — but that it either did not rise to the level of a felony charge, or constituted a possible misdemeanor crime, in which case the statute of limitations has passed.

“After a detailed review of thousands of records dating back to the late 1990s, attorneys in my Special Prosecutions Section have determined that we cannot file felony or misdemeanor charges in this matter. While some of the evidence found in our investigation suggests that some New Hanover County Schools employees may have violated the law at the time, the statute of limitations passed before these allegations were reported to the district attorney and before we received the investigation for potential misdemeanor charges. Additionally, our review determined that felony charges don’t apply in this investigation," Stein said.

Stein did condemn the school district for failing to protect children.

"Even though legal charges aren’t possible, the investigation made clear that for years, certain New Hanover County Schools employees failed to report potential crimes of abuse to the appropriate authorities. They failed at job one — keeping our children safe," Stein said.

Stein did not name specific employees. Both victims and victims' advocates have called for the state to hold former Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday responsible for failing to report Kelly.

Related: "Minute by minute." Year after year (A deep dive on the lives of Kelly’s victims, four years into the civil suit)

Though the case was not directly connected to NHCS, Stein's office noted that the investigation had led to the conviction of Robert Adam Burns, who pleaded guilty in New Hanover County to four counts of statutory sex offenses with a 13-,14-, or 15-year-old and four counts of indecent liberties with a child and was sentenced to 16-20 years in prison.

Related: "It takes years to process that kind of abuse": AG Josh Stein on prosecuting sexual assault, two decades later

Stein said that longer statutes of limitations for both criminal and civil cases could have given his office a better chance of prosecuting the case.

“These allegations underscore a disturbing reality for parents: the unthinkable sometimes happens. That is why I have made preventing child sex abuse and holding accountable those who perpetrate it a top priority. The SAFE Child Act, which my office drafted, mandates that every adult who interacts with a child has a duty to report alleged abuse and assault and extends the statute of limitations for sex crimes against children to better reflect our understanding of the long-term impacts of abuse. The law also better holds accountable institutions that negligently allow abuse to happen and fail to protect our kids. But there is more work to be done. An even longer statute of limitations for civil and criminal cases might have given my office and the victims some recourse to seek justice in this case," Stein said.

In his statement, Stein thanked the victims.

“To the victims who came forward and shared their stories – thank you. The fact that the law prevents us from pursuing charges in this case does not take away from your bravery and strength. Every time someone speaks about the abuse they’ve faced, they make it easier for other victims of abuse to speak up and begin their own journey of healing. You are helping to make kids safer, and we are grateful," he said.

Several investigators from Stein’s office met privately with victims’ advocates in Wilmington just prior to announcing the case was closed, but they did not hold a public meeting. Stein’s office has not responded to requests for additional comment.

Ben David appeared to have been caught off guard by the announcement, and issued a statement:

More than four years ago, I asked for an outside investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation regarding failure to report abuse of students at New Hanover County Schools. My twin goal was to hold people accountable and make our schools as safe as possible.

Like you, I learned earlier today that the Attorney General's Office has concluded that no one can be held criminally responsible since these allegations came to light after the two-year statute of limitations had already expired.

While I have yet to receive anything in writing from the Attorney General’s Office, I am hopeful that everyone will learn the facts and law that led to this decision. There is more than one way to hold someone accountable for their actions, and anyone who is implicated by this investigation should no longer be entrusted with the care of our children.

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.