Note: This report contains discussions of sexual abuse, self-harm, and suicide. If you or anyone you know is in crisis, call the mental health hotline at 988.
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – On a Tuesday evening in February 2018, I got a phone call from a Sheriff’s Deputy. We talked briefly. They told me that a teacher named Michael Earl Kelly had been arrested, that the charges were serious, and that there was more to come.
I asked how serious. The deputy said only, “it’s bad.”
Kelly taught at Isaac Bear Early College High School, he’d won awards — won Teacher of the Year. Many of the first people I talked to about it were shocked. But not all.
I went to his first appearance in court the following day, expecting him, like many defendants, to say nothing.
Instead, he said this: “I’ve done a lot of good work in the schoolwork school system and I’ve made some bad choices.”
I’d covered enough criminal cases to know, that’s not what you say when you’re innocent. But what I didn’t know at the time was how bad it was. How bad his choices had been, how they’d destroyed young lives — how they are still destroying lives, for some, nearly twenty years later.
The criminal case took a year and a half, and in June of 2019, Kelly pleaded guilty to dozens of charges, including sexually abusing his students. During the hearing, the prosecution revealed that the district had investigated Kelly for sexual misconduct — but had not alerted law enforcement.
I remember sitting in the back of the courtroom, leaning forward to hear prosecutor Connie Jordan talk to Superior Court Judge John E. Nobles. That day I would report the exchange for Port City Daily, where I worked at the time:
Jordan told him this had happened twelve years before Kelly was finally arrested.
“[The school] had cleared the defendant of that accusation and clearly that accusation was correct — which then let the defendant continue offending on students for another more than decade in his time at Isaac Bear,” Jordan said.
Judge Nobles interjected, asking Jordan: “You’re condemning the school?”
Jordan nodded, saying, “I think based on what the defendant has said, it’s hard to get around the fact that it had been reported.”
The revelation galvanized public outrage — and prompted questions about the school system, which had not only allegedly protected Kelly but celebrated him, promoted him, and placed vulnerable children in his care.
The press was ravenous, the public incensed. The school district hid behind its lawyer, refusing to comment.
Lost in the frenzy of scandal, for some, was how the victims felt.
Here’s what John Doe, not his real name, one of 14 plaintiffs in a civil suit against New Hanover County Schools (NHCS), felt about it.
“It is the school’s fault for allowing him so much autonomy and so much freedom to do whatever he wanted to do. He kept getting promotions — not demotions, I watched that man myself get two promotions right in front of me. So, he won Teacher of the Year twice in front of me,” John Doe said.
That’s taken from a previously recorded interview. This young man, and several others, agreed to allow WHQR to use their words and voices anonymously.
Here’s another John Doe, who spoke more pointedly.
“I’m fucking pissed that before I was even good friends, or so I thought, with Mr. Kelly that I went … and I talked to Dr. Holliday. And nothing happened,” he said.
What these young men have to say, especially about how praise was heaped at Kelly’s feet, for 20 years, even as they were reporting his behavior, matches what other teachers, parents, and students have told me in the past five years.
That’s a major part of the lawsuit filed by the 14 anonymous John Does against Kelly, the school district, and top administrators, in particular Deputy Superintendent Dr. Rick Holliday. Both students and parents have told me they went to Holliday over the years to complain about Kelly’s behavior — but nothing was ever done.
Holiday resigned shortly after Kelly’s conviction, but not quite in disgrace. The district threw him a secretive going-away party, making sure the press wouldn’t be there — and Sheriff Ed McMahon, who had begun his career in the region as a School Resource Officer at Laney High School when Holliday worked there, formally recognized Holliday with an award celebrating their “long partnership.” Several deputies told me there had been internal pushback but that the Sheriff does as he pleases.
Holliday’s not in hiding and is still occasionally spotted around town in his red convertible, wearing sunglasses and his signature blue-tooth earpiece. His license plate is “DR DADDY.” I chased him for years, trying to get a comment. The last time I saw him, he simply smiled and drove off.
Although he’s never been officially named, Holliday is likely one of the people being investigated by the State Bureau of Investigation for obstruction of justice and failure to report concerns about child abuse. That case has been open for nearly four years. Last summer, the SBI turned over its findings, and for nearly a year prosecutors have been reviewing them.
According to Attorney General Josh Stein, there is a staggering amount of potential evidence, including reams of documentation, to go through.
“It’s a massive investigation, and one which we’re doing the evaluation thoroughly and it’s in process,” Stein said.
The current New Hanover County Board of Education recently voted on a resolution asking the SBI to release its ‘file,’ with some members suggesting that doing so would bring closure to the community, including victims.
The board is responding to intense public pressure for transparency — any transparency at all — on the situation. But it seems misguided since the SBI cannot legally release investigative documents until charges are brought, and even then they may be guarded about complete disclosure.
It also ignores that the SBI investigation, while massive, is not likely to uncover the full scope of the dysfunction that allowed Kelly to prey on students for the better part of 20 years. Nor would criminal convictions be likely to provide the compensation — or the systemic changes — that Kelly’s victims are asking for.
That’s the goal of civil litigation.
The civil case, like its criminal counterpart, has been ongoing since 2019 — but it’s dragged on for different reasons.
Along with my colleagues at WHQR, WECT, and Port City Daily, I’ve watched hours of hearings, and I won’t recount the endless legal mechanisms the district has used to try to have the case thrown out — even as members of three different school boards (those elected in 2018, 2020, and 2022) continue to say in private that they support the victims and hope for an equitable settlement.
At one point, the district, its insurance companies, and the plaintiffs were in mediation, but things fell apart, for a variety of reasons.
Chief among those reasons — Liberty Mutual. Yes, the company whose earworm ad jingle is just the cheerful chanting of its own name.
Liberty is the district’s major insurer. In addition to insuring individuals’ houses, cars, and boats, Liberty also insures school districts against lawsuits stemming from potential sexual misconduct by their employees. In fact, in 2017 NHCS beefed up its sexual misconduct coverage to $3 million through Peerless Insurance (a regional insurance company backed by Liberty).
Liberty’s legal team is fighting on at least two fronts — they’re in litigation against the school district to substantially limit the amount it would have to pay out in the event of a judgment or settlement. They’re also fighting alongside the district to challenge the Safe Child Act as unconstitutional.
The Safe Child Act is a bipartisan law that was passed unanimously — yes, unanimously — in 2019. The law expanded the age range for people abused as children to file civil suits and opened a two-year window for anyone to file a suit, no matter how long ago the abuse took place.
It significantly increased the number of plaintiffs in the case against New Hanover County.
The law was drafted by Stein’s office, and he strongly disagrees with the challenge to it.
“I disagree with their legal analysis, my office drafted and championed the Safe Child Act, because we believe victims deserve a day in court. We made the recommendation because we think it’s constitutional. Of course, it’s in the courts right now. And we’ll see what the courts ultimately decide,” Stein told me recently.
Last year, Judge Phyllis Gorham — who’s overseeing the civil case — sent the issue to three judges in Wake County, a special court panel that decides issues of constitutionality, known as facial challenges.
The case can’t go forward until the three-judge panel rules, and there’s no timeline on that — but attorneys for plaintiffs argue that even if the Safe Child Act is struck down, their case can still proceed, and shouldn’t be stalled.
“Right now, if plaintiffs were to dismiss, and this is a hypothetical, but if we were to dismiss all of the claims for relief under the Safe Child Act, what would remain? The answer is everything,” attorney Martin Ramey told the court during a hearing last October.
And, in the meantime, the plaintiffs — these victims of sexual abuse — are suffering.
For legal, logistical, and ethical reasons, much of the coverage of the civil case against NHCS has focused on legal procedures, the grindingly slow chess game played by lawyers (at great expense, I should add, NHCS has spent exorbitant amounts of money trying to avoid paying out any money to the victims).
There have been some harrowing details revealed, including just how constantly and brazenly Kelly acted, how precisely he targeted vulnerable students and manipulated them, and testimony that he drugged and raped at least one student.
But even these facets of the story have been sanitized, by the rigors of legal language, and the anonymity necessary to protect the victims.
Most people haven’t heard from the John Does directly.
Here’s one young man describing being drugged and assaulted.
“There’s multiple situations. It started off slow— him pulling out his phallus in front of me and asking me to touch it during the car rides, which made me uncomfortable, but again, I had no other option. And then particularly one, one car ride — his house wasn’t too far from where I lived. He said he needed to stop by and grab a few things. And he asked me to come inside so because it was going to be a while. So, I came inside, and he offered me a drink. I drank the drink, and I started to feel different. Sleepy, woozy, lightheaded after that. It’s all sort of a blur of him being on top of me. Me, not being able to move. It still haunts me to this day,” John Doe said.
“I really only remember flashes of it. I still sometimes have nightmares about it this day,” he said, recalling a separate incident.
People who know I’m still covering this story often ask me, “How are they doing?”
What can I say? They’re not doing well.
“There’s anger. There’s sadness. There’s a lot of yelling. There’s a lot of days but at the end of the day, it’s just me cycling. That’s the worst of it. I wake up most days blaming myself. I blame myself. For everything that’s happened. Even…even though I rationally know that doesn’t make sense. I have moments where I just have to leave my office, take my lunch and just sit in the car and cry. And that’s never a moment that I envisioned for myself growing up. There have been moments where I’ve been in such a rut and so much frustration and so much that I literally start punching myself as if I’m trying to defend myself from somebody else. My wife has had to literally make sure that I don’t knock myself out. Because I am having to deal with this level of traumatic events. Like I don’t know how to fully verbalize even now, the level of blame and everything that I have to deal with in regards to this,” said one John Doe.
Many have said they need help dealing with the trauma of being abused at the hands of Michael Earl Kelly. They hold the school district responsible for failing to protect them — and believe the district has an obligation to provide the resources they need to get that help, whether it’s medication, counseling, or therapy.
It’s both tragic and touching that many of the John Does seem more concerned about their fellow plaintiffs than about themselves, often referring to those who have it worse, psychologically, financially, or in terms of support systems.
“So yes, they let us down. What can they do to repay? Well, they’re gonna have to do the right thing and have resources so that I and people that have had it…you know worse than me…can go and get the help that we need to finally have true closure. Put that behind us, psychologically,” one John Doe said.
It’s also hard to ignore that the struggle to afford mental health care, already difficult, now comes on top of crushing inflation and an ever-worsening housing crisis. For many, that means tough financial choices.
“I’ve only recently been able to afford care for myself. I want — for those of us involved, for that not to be a worry … having to choose between groceries and medication, seeking the appropriate help that we need,” another John Doe said.
It’s important to note that, while mental health care is important now, it’s not a simple fix. It’s difficult to overstate just how much the lives of Kelly’s victims have been altered, irreparably, by his abuse.
Dr. Julie Medlin is a psychologist with over 25 years of clinical experience who deals with sexual abuse and its aftermath, especially on those victimized as children. She spoke about the impact.
“They are deeply affected at a very formative time in their life. And unfortunately, that can have long-term lasting effects. And in some cases, you know, it can completely change the person’s trajectory of their life. I mean, sometimes they start doing poorly in school, they drop out of school, they don’t go to college as planned, or, you know, they’re not able to actualize the goals that they had, you know, set out for themselves and many times it’s not because of lack of intellectual ability. It’s many times because they have concentration problems related to PTSD, or they’ve lost some steam, lost confidence. Sometimes they might get into destructive behavior, self-sabotaging behaviors where, you know, they’re self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. And that kind of gets them derailed. So, you know, I have seen in a lot of cases of people who were sexually abused during childhood, and particularly in adolescence, they really get derailed from sort of the trajectory that they were taking,” Medlin said.
Trauma rips a hole in time and space. For many of the survivors, it takes just an offhand comment, a joke, a particular song — or seemingly nothing at all — and they’re right back there, in a classroom, a hallway, a bathroom.
Since the legal battle began, there have been broken relationships, drug and alcohol abuse, and self-harm. Some have turned to unhealthy pornography use, to block out more disturbing memories.
These are, obviously, self-destructive behaviors and poor tools for dealing with the shame, guilt, lack of trust, and anger they feel. But in some cases, they are the only ones available.
The longer the legal battle drags out, the longer some of them are without the resources to deal with the pain. And the process has meant living in limbo with no closure, under the looming threat that they’d go to trial and have a defense attorney question them in court, picking apart their testimony.
We aren’t just talking about the damage done — we’re talking about ongoing trauma.
“It’s ruined every semblance of the word normal in my life. It’s ruined my sense of relationships… I bounced, since this all started, between social drinking, full-blown wake up at five o’clock in the morning-to-start-drinking” alcoholism. I’m on my third test, medication concoction. I’m not dealing with this. I’m not coping with this,” one John Doe said.
“This was the point where I was harming myself as well, with everything going on. I was compartmentalizing so much; I couldn’t feel anything. And that pain, gave me something – gave me some feedback of ‘Yes, I’m here,’” another said.
There have also been hospital visits, medical commitments, and at least eight suicide attempts. The mother of one of the plaintiffs, sadly, took her own life.
I’ve watched a clip of an interview with her, recorded two weeks before her death. She’s sobbing, wrestling with guilt and grief. I’m a staunch advocate for transparency, but I hope that video never goes public. Just know it’s horrific, a testament to the true depth and scope of this story.
Her son talks about it in his own interview. Though he doesn’t believe she had any role in his abuse, her son believes she felt responsible for it.
That she wasn’t alone in feeling that way is exceedingly cold comfort.
One John Doe said, “Some people say, ‘you got to take it day by day.’ I take it minute by minute. The lack of self-worth, the struggle is…is constant. Two weeks ago, in fact, I took every medication — the entire bottle, and it should have killed me. But for some reason, I’m still here.”
The survivors of Kelly’s abuse hope the lawsuit will do more than provide compensation. They also hope the suit will spark policy changes — and prevent what happened to them from happening again.
“One of the biggest things I’ve hoped for is change. I want this to get to the point where it doesn’t happen again. Teachers or faculty are trained to look at these flags, identify them and not think that he’s a good person…this is predatory behavior,” one John Doe said, discussing better training.
And John Doe alluded to the Kelly case’s role in three school board elections — and campaign pledges that have, for the plaintiffs, repeatedly rung hollow.
“For me, I know that the first ounce of justice is something actually has to be done. No more words, no more political speak. No more campaigns to be like, “We’ll do better, we promise.” I need to see you guys do better because I don’t feel comfortable coming back to Wilmington in a living capacity. I don’t want my child to go through this school system because I don’t think I’ve seen anything that remotely looks like actual action,” he said.
And here’s a final quote, from a John Doe reflecting on just how long it is taken for him to grapple with his own trauma, and how long it is still taking to deliver change.
“It’s taken me right around 20 years to realize the impact of what happened to me …. Having a spotlight on this issue in my life, and thinking through it makes me mad — very sad — that it’s taken so long to even come to where this has been blown open. Regardless of whatever happens tomorrow or the next day, wherever any of all of this goes….you have a chance, and in my opinion, an obligation, to the students, and the families of those you educate, to make sure shit like this doesn’t happen,” he said. “You would be a damn fool if you didn’t take the chance to start making the changes to make sure that things are handled correctly, going forward and into perpetuity. As long as your school board, your school system, is intact — there’s no excuse for what has happened in New Hanover County.”
This story can be found on the WHQR website here.
Copyright 2023 WECT. All rights reserved.
Note: This report contains discussions of sexual abuse, self-harm, and suicide. If you or anyone you know is in crisis, call the mental health hotline at 988.