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CAPE FEAR MEMORIAL BRIDGE: Updates, resources, and context

PCS launches "independent investigation" into the dismissal of Topsail High School wrestling coach

 Members of the Topsail High School Wrestling team pose with medal and signs in a school basketball gym.
Pender County Schools
Coach Pete Smith, far left, did not get his contract renewed with Pender County Schools. Some parents are now asking why.

After coach Pete Smith's contract was not renewed, parents began calling for his reinstatement. The school district is now looking into it, with a tentative report due date set for late April.

On Tuesday, Pender County Schools announced that it had hired an outside investigator to look into Topsail High School's wrestling program.

The announcement followed the Pender County school board's closed session meeting on Tuesday. It's in response to what district spokesperson Bob Fankboner called "significant concerns brought to the Board's attention by both school system staff and a significant portion of the THS community."

Topsail High School's wrestling program was previously spearheaded by Pete Smith, who led the program for three years. After finishing the wrestling season in February, Topsail High School reportedly did not renew his contract.

This sparked outrage among some parents at Topsail High School. There's currently a Change.org petition calling for Pete Smith's reinstatement, which has so far garnered 630 signatures.

"Of all of the current 'complaints' against Coach Pete, the majority are from actions of other coaches or students themselves. Many of these 'complaints' occurred months to years ago," wrote Kristen Lash, a parent associated with the team. "If we are going to hold our wrestling program to such a high standard, it is only fair to hold our administrative staff, our BOE, our Athletic Directors, and students accountable as well."

Pender County officials could not comment on what specific complaints were made about Smith or whether they influenced the decision to let him go. They also could not provide the specific reason or reasons for ending his contract.

The petition also noted that Smith had been awarded MEC Head Coach of the Year in 2023 and had state champions in 2023 and 2024.

Prior to Tuesday's announcement, parents and Smith himself showed up for a school board meeting on March 19 to offer public comment on the situation.

"I am being fired simply because I challenged the process and I challenged the people associated with that process. I challenged them to do better and be better for the sake of these kids," said Smith. "If that is too much to handle, then so be it, and if I ruffle feathers in the process then that’s just the way it is."

In Tuesday's press release, Fankboner stressed that the final report on the investigation would be publicly available. The tentative deadline for the report is the end of April.

Nikolai Mather is a Report for America corps member from Pittsboro, North Carolina. He covers rural communities in Pender County, Brunswick County and Columbus County. He graduated from UNC Charlotte with degrees in genocide studies and political science. Prior to his work with WHQR, he covered religion in Athens, Georgia and local politics in Charlotte, North Carolina. In his spare time, he likes working on cars and playing the harmonica. You can reach him at nmather@whqr.org.