A look at education employee arrests in NC
Data spanning 2016 to 2022 shows 263 arrests
Based on reporting spanning the years 2016 through Nov. 13, 2022, a total of 263 public school employees in North Carolina have been arrested for various reasons.
Of those 263 arrests, 96 were determined to have resulted in a conviction, and 44 are now registered sex offenders per records on file with the state.
Charges were either dropped or an individual was acquitted in only 11 out of the 263 cases. Of those 11, three individuals died and the charges were dismissed as a result. Two of the three died by apparent suicide. The third died of a health issue while in custody.
The totals show a big drop starting in 2020. Pandemic school closures clearly impacted the rate of arrests which hit a high of 58 the year prior.
Some qualifiers on the data
The number of total convictions is incomplete and fluid. There are a few reasons for this such as it can often take years for a case to make its way through the courts. That already slow case movement was unquestionably impacted by the pandemic as courts closed to in-person operations. Another reason conviction totals may not be complete is a lack of available data in court records as well as in state and federal databases.
While some arrests involved assault or DWI, the majority of arrests recorded in the table above involved charges of a sexual nature. The most prevalent charges include taking indecent liberties with a minor or student, sex act with a minor, sex act with a student by a teacher, and statutory rape. Some of the arrests involved child pornography, sexual exploitation of a minor, and crimes against nature.
Convictions on charges with sexual components can result in the requirement an individual must register as a sex offender. Those totals are listed in the table above, but it should be noted that registration as a sex offender occurs only after an individual is no longer incarcerated. Also, not all individuals convicted are required to register depending on plea deals or depending on which type of charges they were convicted on.
These totals may not be inclusive of all arrests and are based on police reports and media reporting where an individual was identified as being a school employee or a teacher.
Law enforcement in North Carolina is not required to report the profession of an arrested individual and likewise, is not required by law to report the arrest of an education employee to their employer or to the N.C. State Board of Education.
In other words, the yearly total of arrests involving education employees could be - and likely is - much higher.
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More To The Story
While the main focus of reporting I’ve done has been on public school employees, I began including non-public school employees starting in late 2017.
Between late 2017 and Nov. 13, 2022, non-public or private school employees arrested for various reasons totals 26.
Some observations and background
Around the time I began looking at and reporting teacher arrests in North Carolina, the state had recently received an “F” in the area of teacher background checks from the national newspaper USA Today. At that time, the state superintendent was June Atkinson.
Nothing was done by Atkinson nor the state board of education to shore up background checks. Both entities blamed taking no action for six years on a lack of funds but left out that neither had approached the legislature during that time for more money.
Background checks, however, are about filtering out possible offenders and actually do very little to curb crimes in schools.
Currently, each district has its own procedures they follow for such checks; there is no clear uniformity in this process or in vendors conducting the checks. Only a few districts fingerprint their employees.
It has been my experience a background check is performed by the district at the time of hire but it is usually never repeated. If checks were repeated on a regular basis, additional arrests that flew under the radar might be caught. It should be noted that anyone volunteering at a public school in the state has to submit to a background check - every single school year.
The lack of appropriate training and a tip reporting system is a problem. So is the lack of a clear set of criteria for districts to conduct mandatory reporting to state-level officials of incidents and arrests.
If such a mandtory reporting system for districts were in place (and enforced), there would need to be a dedicated office that handles this information. Right now, a combination of state board of education staff and Department of Public Instruction staff handle issues with teacher-related issues like these but what they mainly deal with is the impact of convictions on teacher licenses.
The data I have collected shows that in a number of cases a license was allowed to expire while a court case was ongoing. This is par for the course as no action is taken on a license until a conviction or internal hearing is held. Having said that, some teacher licenses that have been allowed to lapse have not been placed on revoked status once a conviction has occurred.
Other areas state education leaders and legislators may want to consider is the near total blackout or delayed release of information given to parents when a teacher at their child’s school is arrested and the fact that “pass the trash” is still going on.
For the uninitiated, “pass the trash” refers to a school district purposefully moving a problem teacher around from school to school to avoid having to fire them for misconduct allegations or disciplinary reasons. In some cases, the district allows the teacher to resign thereby enabling that teacher to carry on in a new district unencumbered.
The legislature tried to address “pass the trash” by making changes to state education statutes related to resignation requirements:
Statutes are great - but only if enforced and followed. In covering teacher arrest stories, I’ve found that districts either don’t know about the change or are just not following the statute’s reporting requirements.
A rather horrifying but prime example of a “pass the trash” case is that of Michael Kelly, a former New Hanover teacher who preyed on students for almost two decades.
Kelly was first arrested in February 2018 on a handful of charges involving students. A month later, more victims came forward and charges piled up. In the end, he pled guilty to 61 sex offense charges involving former students in June 2019 and is serving a maximum of 24 years and three months and a maximum of an additional 7 years following the completion of the first sentence.
Litigation is still ongoing, including a civil suit against Kelly and one against the New Hanover County School Board which claims district officials knew Kelly was a problem yet just moved him from school to school to hide it.
As of May 2021, the number of victims in the case had risen to 13.
Brief timeline of the Kelly Case
Kelly is arrested and is initially charged with one count of third-degree sexual exploitation of a minor and three counts of indecent liberties with a student. His arrest was the result of a joint operation by the FBI and the New Hanover County Sheriff Department.
More victims are discovered and more than a dozen new charges are added. At that time, the full list of charges against Kelly included:
One count statutory sex offense with a child
Two counts solicitation to commit a felony
Five counts of indecent liberties with a child
Five counts of sexual exploitation of a minor
Sixteen counts of indecent liberties with a student
April 2018: Seven more victims are identified and the number of felony charges rose to 59.
1 Count Indecent Liberties/Student (Bond: $1,000,000.00)
1 Count Statutory Sex Offense w/ Child Under 15 years old
3 Counts Solicitation to commit (Bond: $500,000.00)
1 Count Attempted Sexual Offense w/ Student
1 Count Sexual Exploitation of Minor (First Degree)
8 Counts Sexual Exploitation of Minor (Second Degree)
1 Count Sexual Exploitation of Minor (Third Degree)
23 Counts Indecent Liberties w/ Student (Bond: $500,000.00)
20 Counts Indecent Liberties w/ child (Bond: $100,000.00)
June of 2019:
Kelly pleads guilty to the majority of the 61 felony charges that were pending against him. Kelly surrendered his teaching license to the state in July 2019. Judge John Nobles sentences Kelly to 16 to 24 years in prison on the most serious charges of child exploitation and statutory sex offense.
Kelly’s additional 57 charges are consolidated for judgment, with Nobles adding a sentence of 20-84 months (up to 7 years) to be served following completion of the first sentence.
Kelly will serve a maximum of 24 years and three months and a maximum of an additional 7 years following the completion of the first sentence.
July of 2019:
Holliday resigned less than a week after the New Hanover Sheriff indicated an investigation had been opened into claims that the district was warned about a teacher sexually abusing students yet failed to act.
Holliday has been named in the investigation by at least two sets of parents who had complained about Kelly and other teacher behavior, according to Port City Daily. The parents allege Holliday did not act and did not report the complaints to the district.
April of 2020:
Four other victims are added to the civil lawsuit. The complaint document at that time included 10 John Does and graphic details.
May of 2021:
More victims of Michael Kelly are added to the lawsuit against the New Hanover County School district. The total number of victims rises to 13.
WECT’s Ann McAdams provided an excellent recap and look ahead at this case. The civil trial was set for September. The New Hanover County School district continues to fight the lawsuit.
Report: 269 K-12 educators arrested on child sex crimes in first 9 months of this year