WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – Allegations regarding how school administrators handled alleged cases of sexual misconduct were front and center at the New Hanover County School Board meeting Wednesday night.
Reverend Dante Murphy of the Southern Coalition for Social Justice asked the board for an independent investigation of cases of sexual misconduct over the past 15 years. He said “in the midst of trying to do good … the administration failed students.”
Murphy said he’s speaking on behalf of five people who contacted him regarding how administrators handled allegations of sexual misconduct, including the case of Michael Kelly, a former science teacher at Isaac Bear Early College High School.
Kelly was arrested in February and is facing more than 50 charges ranging from indecent liberties with a child to sexual exploitation of a minor. The mother of one of Kelly’s former students told WECT she filed a complaint about Kelly in 2004 with the school system’s central office.
A spokesperson with the school system told WECT no complaints about Kelly were received before this recent incident.
Murphy says not handling these cases appropriately hurts all students.
“You look at some of the child sexual things that have come up in the school system, and when you allow predators to run free, that threatens every child in the school system because you don’t know where they’re going to end up,” Murphy said. “That’s what we’re looking at.”
Murphy is asking for a written response from the board regarding his request for an independent investigation.
“I’m representing really every citizen that sends a child to school because the thing with these issues is that you want them to really represent everybody,” he said. “A threat to any child is a threat to every child.”
Several of the new board members who were sworn Wednesday said they support the reverend’s calls for an independent investigation.
Those four new members are mostly newcomers, and most are Democrats. The four outgoing incumbents were honored Wednesday night.
The board has been under Republican control for years, but Democrats took three of the the four open spots in the November elections. The board will still have a 4-3 Republican majority.
Three incumbent board members — Janice Cavenaugh Donald Hayes and Bruce Shell — who had more than 70 years of combined experience on the board lost their spots to newcomers in the November election. Stefanie Adams (D), Judy Justice (D), and Nelson Beaulieu (D) are the newcomers who will replace them.
Bill Rivenbark (R) beat incumbent Ed Higgins (R), the sitting chair, in the primaries to fill the fourth open spot.
Adams worked in education for 15 years and has a son in kindergarten in the NHC school system. Adams wants increased funding for mental and behavioral health in schools, and ninth grade centers to relieve overcrowding in high schools.
Justice worked as a social studies teacher at Laney High School for eight years, then as a principal and central office administrator in Hyde County. She said she thought there was a “lack of transparency and accountability” in the school system with the old school board.
Justice wants to see more economic integration in the schools, and thinks there are too many charter schools in the state.
Beaulieu is a political newcomer and a teacher at Cape Fear Community College. He has two elementary school-aged girls. Beaulieu is in favor of a $500 stipend for elementary school teachers to spend on classroom supplies, and replacing the Title IX coordinator after how the school system handled complaints about sexual assault and harassment.
Beaulieu also suggested having school board meetings at schools to increase participation. He said he thought the meeting went well.
“I feel like we’re really going to be able to work together as a group,” Beaulieu said. “If you can’t have non-partisanship on a board of education, well, we’re in worse trouble than anybody ever realized so I’m just really excited to work with all of my fellow board members and happy to get going.”
Rivenbark was the only Republican to fill one of the four open spots. He is also a newcomer, and wants to improve transparency between the board and public. He works for the New Hanover County ABC Board and is the brother of City of Wilmington Councilman Charlie Rivenbark.
Most of the new board members said they were tired of the old board members who had served for decades, and that the board needed some fresh faces.
These four join David Wortman (R), Lisa Estep (R) and Jeannette S. Nichols (R), the vice chair of the board. In unanimous votes, Estep was voted new chairman and Wortman was voted new vice chairman.
The board also unanimously approved allotting $180,000 to Hurricane Florence shelter costs, like for staff and supplies used during and after the storm. Board members hope to get reimbursed by the county.
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