Part One: Cover-Up Culture? - WECT Investigates decades of sexual abuse at New Hanover County Schools
NEW HANOVER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - Peter Frank, the now-former Roland-Grise Middle School Band teacher, is in custody awaiting trial on a series of child sex crime charges.
Frank is the third New Hanover County Schools employee to be arrested for sex crimes against students in just the last two years.
Michael Earl Kelly pleaded guilty to sex crimes against minor students, and Nicholas Oates died while awaiting trial for alleged crimes he pleaded not guilty to.
Going back over the last two decades, there are additional cases: Jessica Wishnask and Richard Priode both pleaded guilty to crimes they were arrested for after they had moved to other parts of the state, with Priode’s case involving a student in Charlotte.
Frank’s arrest and the addition of new victims to civil suits against the school district led WECT to take a comprehensive look at the history of sexual abuse at New Hanover County Schools.
While Frank declined invitations for an interview, as did former administrators, WECT talked with former elected district leaders, parents, and survivors.
For the last two years, many in the community have questioned what school administrators and board members knew, when they knew it, and how abuse was able to go on, unchecked.
“Only two things could have happened ... either they did it on purpose, or they were terribly negligent,” said attorney Jim Lea, who is representing victims and alleged victims of Frank and Kelly in ongoing civil cases against the school system.
For those survivors, those questions take on an even deeper meaning.
For Michael Tomaselli, the news about Frank and the emergence of newly-discovered victims of Kelly has been hard to grapple with.
“Seeing more cases come forward ... In the beginning, I’m not going to lie, I felt guilty,” he said. “If I had said something at the time I maybe could’ve done something. It’s taken a lot of active effort for me to come to the realization that it’s not my fault.”
***Warning: The remainder of this story includes graphic details about sex crimes against minors that may not be suitable for all readers***
Tomaselli was a student at Isaac Bear Early College high school from 2006 to 2010, and had Kelly as a science teacher.
He is a survivor of Kelly’s admitted abuse, and came forward to speak at the former teacher’s sentencing.
“He was good at what he did,” Tomaselli said. “I was brought in with that sense of security. I had a difficult home life. He was one of the people that if I had family troubles at home, I can go after class and talk to him.”
He said Kelly’s popularity at the school — he was named as a teacher of the year just prior to his 2018 arrest — and openness toward students drew him in.
“I didn’t have many friends, new to the area. I didn’t have a good support system, so I grappled onto him as a support figure, and other students did the same,” he said.
The abuse, Tomaselli said, started as crude jokes in class or with a small group of students.
“[He] made us feel special, that he was doing something else, giving us, treating us just like adults,” he said.
Tomaselli said he and others raised concerns to staff members at Isaac Bear about the inappropriate language, but he says they were told not to take Kelly’s behavior seriously — that he was a great teacher and they shouldn’t make an issue out of it.
However, the jokes and inappropriate gestures turned into much more serious interactions, with Kelly showing the boys explicit photos and videos, and then even further.
“It would escalate from the pornographic images to exposing himself. Playing games and having us expose ourselves.”
Tomaselli described the interactions as a “game” where Kelly made it seem like he was just a participant, rather than the instigator.
“He was really good at making it seem like it wasn’t his idea,” he said. “Making it seem like it’s our game where we are just letting him play.”
Kelly pleaded guilty to all 59 counts against him on June 25, 2019, and was sentenced to 17.6 - 31.25 years in prison.
During that court appearance, prosecutor Connie Jordan indicated Kelly told officials he was investigated for some of the incidents, but cleared by the school administration.
Nicholas Oates, who worked as a special education assistant at Myrtle Grove Middle School, was arrested on July 7, 2018, almost five months to the day from Kelly’s arrest, accused of having molested a student while he was at Myrtle Grove.
Where Kelly was arrested while still employed by New Hanover County Schools, Oates had moved on to a different educational position after resigning from the county school system.
His arrest came approximately a year and a half after he abruptly left the middle school amid an internal investigation into allegations of his relationship with the student.
Oates was suspended in December 2016 while the district investigated “suggestive” text messages. Court records show Oates and his victim had exchanged nude photos, but the victim said she deleted them so her parents wouldn’t see them. Sheriff’s investigators say they were unaware of the photos during the district’s investigation, and at the time authorities decided the suggestive text exchanges did not amount to anything criminal.
A short while later, Oates was suspended again, and that suspension lasted until he resigned from the system on Feb. 1, 2017.
According to public personnel records, Oates was never disciplined while an employee of New Hanover County Schools, and because he resigned and was not fired, other education systems would have had no idea of the nature of why he was suspended.
He was, therefore, allowed to move on to another educational environment where he was exposed to minors.
“That was what really got to the heart of what upset people so much,” said Ben Schachtman, editor of Port City Daily and one of the journalists who followed Oates’ case. “I think what motivated people, what resonated with people about the story was: ‘How does that happen?‘”
Oates pleaded not guilty to his alleged crimes, but according to the District Attorney’s office it came to light during a hearing in the case Oates “had admitted to law enforcement to engaging in sexual activity with the minor victim.”
On Nov. 3, 2019, Oates died of a “pre-existing medical condition” while awaiting his day in court. His next appearance was scheduled for Nov. 12.
When Oates died, District Attorney Ben David said the case, and any justice for Oates’ alleged victim — who was age 12-13 during the time the events in the charges are alleged to have occurred — dies with him.
Schachtman said much of the information about what happened, why charges were not immediately filed, and why Oates’ was allowed to resign also remain under wraps because the case never made it to a courtroom.
“[Ben David] had said ‘I will tell you. All will be revealed. I will explain all of this when Oates gets his day in court, whether there is a plea hearing, trial, the prosecution will lay out everything, and will explain this, and we will address that issue of why wasn’t he arrested,’” Schachtman said. “There’s still not a lot of clarity. It’s over two years later and not a lot of clarity on what exactly happened. We know the bare minimum.”
David’s office said it could not comment on the ongoing investigation into New Hanover County Schools, which is being handled by the State Bureau of Investigation.
The cases of Kelly, Oates, and Frank not only led to outrage from those parents with children in the New Hanover County Schools system, but caught the attention of former parents who said they had been trying to raise the alarm about the same kind of issues decades before.
That included the case of Richard Priode, who was hired as a band teacher at Laney High School in 1997, and left the district when he resigned in 2001.
He was arrested in Charlotte in 2009 for having a sexual relationship with a student there.
That was ten years after Barbara Burnett first complained that her daughter had been physically, but not sexually, assaulted by Priode while on a band trip out of town.
While on the bus with students, Burnett said her daughter was punched in the arm by the band teacher to the point it left a bruise so significant she could see the outline of his fingers.
This happened, she said, after a series of childish and mocking behaviors from Mr. Priode during the field trip. Burnett says the teacher then began to poke and tease her daughter on the bus, and positioned himself so she could not get out of her seat. When she objected further, he punched her arm.
After the incident, Burnett said Priode ridiculed her daughter for complaining and made fun of her in front of the class, and the teacher’s behavior escalated.
“I can’t imagine any adult behaving that way. Much less one who is supposed to be a role model,” she said.
Burnett took her complaints to Rick Holliday, who was principal at Laney at the time, but would later rise through the system to become assistant superintendent of the district. Her complaints included allegations of other inappropriate behavior by Priode, including lifting female students up by their under-arms and making suggestive comments.
She said she was dismissed by the principal, and only received a formal response after her daughter’s father sent Holliday a letter.
Burnett continued to write Holliday and the school board for years, even after Priode resigned, and to date has sent roughly 1,600 pages of correspondence to the school system seeking answers.
When Priode was arrested in Charlotte, Burnett said she felt New Hanover’s lack of action in response to complaints like hers may have emboldened the teacher.
“I’m not the kind of person to say I told you so, but if I were this would be the time,” she said.
Holliday retired in August 2019.
Priode was sentenced to probation after pleading guilty.
It isn’t just male teachers who have been charged with sex crimes with their students — or who had questionable conduct documented in their employment records.
In 2009, Jessica Wishnask was arrested and charged with statutory rape and indecent liberties with a student. While she was arrested after having left the district, the charges were for events that occurred when she was a teacher at Williston Middle School.
She pleaded guilty in January 2010.
Upon review of her employment with New Hanover, personnel records show she was suspended with pay in October 2008, and then again November 26 through the end of the year when she resigned from New Hanover.
She later took a job as an elementary school teacher in Pitt County.
Those records indicated an internal investigation was conducted during each of those suspensions, but no criminal charges were filed.
When the charges were announced, three school board members said they also looked into the language arts teacher’s file, where they said they found details about the investigation that revealed Wishnask had been in a locked classroom with a male student. She was later seen talking to that student again after she had been instructed not to.
Elizabeth Redenbaugh, who was one of the board members who asked to see the file, said she found the contents disturbing.
“It was horrifying to me as a board member,” Redenbaugh said, adding that she was concerned as to why action wasn't taken.
This school year, the leadership of New Hanover County Schools looks somewhat different.
Tim Markley, who was hired as superintendent in 2010, resigned in February, three days after search warrants in the Peter Frank case were served and revealed details about the band teacher’s alleged crimes.
Assistant superintendent of human resources John Welmers resigned effective March 1.
Holliday announced his retirement less than a week after Kelly pleaded guilty in 2019.
In legal filings, Holliday has denied knowing anything about Kelly’s actions.
Along with former assistant superintendent Holliday, WECT attempted to talk with former superintendent Markley, who hung up after a reporter identified herself.
Attempts to reach Welmers were not returned, and the school system declined to comment.
Reporters also talked with or tried to contact former school board members, some of whom agreed to interviews or answered questions over the phone.
Ed Higgins, who was on the board at the same time as Redenbaugh, said he had no idea anything criminal was taking place.
Janice Cavenaugh, who recently ended her campaign seeking to recover her seat on the board, said the same.
But parents — and attorneys representing some of the dozens of victims and alleged victims — say there is a culture of sweeping allegations and actions under the rug.
“Only two things could have happened. Either there was malicious cover-up or a willful ignorance, and neither one of those are good,” Lea, the civil attorney, said. “I mean they are not.”
Lea’s firm along with another Wilmington-based legal team is pursuing civil cases against NHCS regarding the handling of both Kelly and Frank.
There is also an ongoing investigation by the State Bureau of Investigation into if administrators violated any laws in handling allegations against Kelly or others that were reportedly brought to their attention.
The North Carolina Attorney General’s office will prosecute that case, if it comes forward.
For those like Tomaselli, who lived it, the pain of asking what could have been done goes beyond court filings.
“Hearing all of the things that happened before, I get angry,” Tomaselli said. “If they actually did their job — whoever heard, saw, received those complaints, if they do their job about them, I would not have to be sitting here.”
This is part one of WECT’s investigative series into the history of sexual abuse at New Hanover County Schools. Read Parts Two, Three and Four for more coverage.
If you or someone you know needs help regarding sexual abuse, you can contact Southeastern North Carolina’s rape crisis center, Wilmington’s Carousel Center or the Chrysalis Center.
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