Peter Frank, a band teacher at Roland Grise Middle School in Wilmington, faces multiple felony charges of sex crimes against children. He is just the latest in several recent high-profile cases involving employees of New Hanover County Public Schools and allegations of child sex abuse.
WHQR talks with Ben Schachtman, Managing Editor of Port City Daily, about his reporting on the issue – including why complaints about these teachers didn’t stop them from having access to kids for years.
RLH: Ben Schachtman, we’ve seen now three high profile public cases with people accused of sex crimes against children in the New Hanover County public school system. Is there a systemic problem?
BS: I think what makes people say that is that in each case the pattern looks very similar and that pattern looks like internal disciplinary documents and parents filing complaints, leaving a paper trail that we've in some cases had access to before ultimately there's an arrest. Wrongful termination suits are a major issue. There are also personnel laws. You cannot simply just fire a tenured teacher. It's not as cut and dried as some people think it is.
And so had this happened once, yes, I would say, you know, maybe this is just an unfortunate incident, but we're looking at three cases now. And in each case we saw that there had been, you know, warning signs, documented evidence of wrongdoing followed by an arrest where the claims of parents were vindicated.
RLH: And in at least a couple of cases, this has gone on for many years. We're not even talking about a few incidents that raised red flags.
BS: So yes. So the Michael Earl Kelly Case dates back for 20 some years, to at least 2003 probably earlier and the most recent arrest. And we should make clear that this is only arrest this, there hasn't been a trial or hearing but, Peter Michael Frank had notes in his personnel file at Roland Grise Middle School of inappropriate relationships dating back to 1999.
RLH: New Hanover County commissioners have pledged, I don't know if you would call it support, to the school system. This is an interesting new twist to protocols because so far these issues are things that would either be handled within the school system or through law enforcement or both. Now the commissioners are getting involved. What does that mean and how is that happening?
BS: It's difficult to find a precedent for this. The Board of Education is its own thing. And the only real power the board of commissioners has over the school board is they sign the check, right? They, they approve the budget. Obviously they can't remove elected officials, but what they've done has been presented as offering support. But it seems to me as if it is a direct recognition that they don't feel like the Board of Education is doing enough because these are clearly resources that the board of education could call on if they wanted.
RLH: And what are the resources?
BS: Right. So…what we're talking about is sending in detectives with the new Hanover County Sheriff's Office who are trained in investigating sex crimes and forensic investigators from the Department of Social Services. Again, these are people who spend their life investigating sex crimes often against children. Those are the people who were being sent and also counseling and mental health officials who were there for the very real psychological trauma that comes from assaults on children.
RLH: Now, ostensibly, that would be happening already, but it's not. Is that the implication?
BS: That is our understanding and we've done some research in the past, and some reporting on some of the hesitancy of the school system to let in outside counseling. That’s changed a little bit in the last couple of years... Bottom line, these are resources that are not currently in the school and the county’s basically saying, we would like to bring these in, but the end of the day the school board has to approve it.
RLH: Ben Schachtman, Managing Editor of Port City Daily, thanks so much for being with us today.
BS: Thank you so much for having me.