Parents outraged that a felon was allowed to volunteer on a Beaufort County school trip

File photo
File photo

Sean Henrickson was never notified that a volunteer working with his son at Beaufort High School was a convicted felon.

Instead, he says, he had to learn about the volunteer's criminal history from a text message that was circulating among his son's friends.

"It was a failing by three entities — the school, the district and JROTC," Henrickson said in a recent interview.

A group of Beaufort High parents, including Henrickson, are outraged by what they say was a mishandling by Beaufort County School District officials.

They're raising questions about the district's system for checking the backgrounds of volunteers — which the district says was upgraded years ago after former volunteers, some with questionable backgrounds, faced legal trouble — and the level to which the schools and district investigate volunteers before allowing them to work with students.

Michael Kelley, 36, served as a volunteer with Beaufort High’s Air Force Junior Reserve Officers' Training Corps program for the past three years.

Michael Kelley, a volunteer with the Beaufort High School Air Force Junior ROTC program, was arrested for breaking parole on May 8, 2018.

Kelley was charged by the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office for felony check fraud in 2003 and breach of trust with fraudulent intent in 2014, according to Beaufort County Detention Center records.

As a result of his 2014 charge, Kelley was sentenced to five years in prison. It was later reduced to time served, three years of probation and restitution, online detention records show.

Then last month, Kelley was arrested for violating his probation and crossing state lines after returning from the National High School Drill Team Championships with the junior ROTC team in Daytona Beach, Fla., according to Beaufort County Detention Center records.

Henrickson, whose son is in the junior ROTC program, said the school district is not taking the matter seriously.

"When this incident occurred, there was no communication (from the district) on this coach being on probation and getting arrested," Henrickson said.

A week after Kelley's arrest, the JROTC director met with parents for a team meeting and parents wanted answers about Kelley’s arrest. Neither Superintendent Jeff Moss nor Beaufort High School Principal Bonnie Almond were present at the meeting.

"I really feel all of this could have been avoided through more thoughtful oversight," Henrickson said.

Almond and Alice Walton, the district's chief administrative and human resources officer, refused to speak to a reporter from The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette about this incident. Moss was on vacation the week of June 11 and could not be reached for comment, according to the district’s spokesperson Jim Foster.

But, in an email sent to Henrickson on May 11, Moss wrote: "(Kelley’s) approval to serve as a volunteer was based on the information received and was limited in scope ... I have not found any connection from his background to his work with the JROTC program."

This is not the first time the school district's process for vetting volunteers has prompted public outcry.

In 2014, a Bluffton High School assistant girls basketball coach, who had been working as an unpaid volunteer, met a student at the student's home to fight her.

The volunteer had a previous felony that went undetected by the school district in spite of a pre-employment background screening conducted by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division.

In response, the district vowed to screen volunteers more thoroughly.

At the start of the 2014-2015 school year, the district began its new screening process, conducted by the Background Investigation Bureau, which was said to be more comprehensive than the previous checks by the S.C. Law Enforcement Division.

The SLED checks covered mostly offenses committed in South Carolina and only those voluntarily reported to the statewide agency by local law enforcement. By comparison, the Background Investigation Bureau conducts nationwide checks that incorporate county, state and federal court records, an address history and name aliases.

The Background Investigation Bureau owns the "largest domestic court record electronic retrieval system in the industry," which is eight times larger than the FBI’s Fingerprint Database, according to its website.

After multiple requests from The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette to speak with administrators about the district's process for screening volunteers, Foster instead responded with an email, saying that the district decides on a case-by-case basis if someone who is convicted of a nonviolent offense can serve as a school volunteer. Administrators in the district's human resources department refused to speak to a reporter and explain how those decisions are made.

So, for the second time in recent years, parents can't seem to understand why a volunteer fell through the cracks of the district’s extensive background check process.

Brett May, whose son is also on the team, started volunteering with the program earlier in the school year and quickly began to question Kelley’s qualifications for the position, he said.

Kelley treated the students on the team "as if they were adults on Parris Island," May said. "He said things that were not appropriate for their ears."

May said he found out about Kelley’s criminal background in December, but was told by the head of the high school's ROTC program that it did not make Kelley ill-equipped to work with students.

"The premise of ROTC is to teach morals, ethics and good leadership. How can a habitual offender teach morals, ethics and good leadership when they don’t do it themselves?" May said.

Suspended volunteer status

Kelley served in the U.S. Marine Corps for four years before volunteering at Beaufort High, he told The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette in a recent interview.

During the 2017-2018 school year, his wife worked as a Spanish teacher at the high school and his daughter was a freshman on the drill team, he said.

Kelley, who declined to comment on his criminal background, said he was in charge of teaching the drill team advanced methods of drill and assisting and creating routines.

"I’m very proud of the accomplishments of the students and where they’ve gotten in the past three years," he said.

Although Kelley told the newspapers he never handled any money or funding for Beaufort High's Junior ROTC program, the two parent volunteers who worked alongside him disagree.

May said he paid Kelley for white gloves and T-shirts that he never received. Each cadet also was charged about $300 for the national drill team competition and were later informed by the head of the high school's ROTC program that they would be refunded more than $100.

Foster wrote in an email that Beaufort High "reviewed the documentation for JROTC transactions and found everything to be in order." The refunds, he wrote, were due to some additional funds made available by the U.S. Air Force after the trip.

School officials would not talk to a reporter to explain how the additional funding source was discovered nor how they determined the program's transactions were all properly authorized.

Lt. Col. Andrew Wichers, who is in charge of the high school’s Junior ROTC program, declined to comment on the matter. "We have moved forward," he said.

In an email received by Henrickson on May 23, Almond wrote that Kelley was no longer employed as a volunteer.

Almond said in the email that she "did not know of his status previously, but acted immediately when we found out."

"When it came to my attention there was a public issue, the (Beaufort County School District Human Resources) department shared the information with me and we suspended his volunteer status as we were directed," she wrote in the email.

Almond would not talk to a reporter to explain how she was unaware of Kelley's criminal history if the background check uncovered it and school district officials decided "on a case-by-case basis" that he could responsibly serve as a volunteer.

Parents are still searching for answers — when will they receive their refunds, how the school district’s background check did not alert them to Kelley’s crimes and where their money has gone the past three years?

In response, they have filed Freedom of Information requests with the district and are urging the school to conduct an audit looking into the Junior ROTC program as a whole.

"To me, it seemed like the paid instructors gave control over the whole thing to a volunteer," May said. "... And now, the district wants it to go away.

"They just want to sweep it under the rug."