Michigan State trustee and defense attorney Dan Kelly, the man who apologized to victims of Larry Nassar’s sexual abuse for only viewing the case through a legal lens, once used victim blaming and another time used victim shaming when defending Michigan public school systems in child sexual abuse cases. The tactics were first reported by reported by WXYZ’s Ross Jones.
At least four times, per WXYZ, Kelly provided legal counsel for Warren Consolidated Schools in sex abuse civil cases. Two prominent abuse cases in the early 2000s—those of former Warren employees James Kearly and Roderick Reese—resulted in Kelly first trying to convince the jury that the abused minors didn’t understand the severity of their abuser’s actions and then trying to reveal the identities of the abused minors. Kelly provided WXYZ with the following statement:
“As a member of the MSU Board of Trustees, I am committed to working with Interim University President John Engler and the full Board in supporting the survivors of Dr. Nassar and addressing the challenges this matter has presented for the entire Michigan State University community. Each Board member brings their experience and background from their past that will help the university and survivors move forward. Because of the confidential nature of my work as a private sector attorney and my role as an MSU Trustee, it would be inappropriate for me to comment further.”
Kelly’s first notable action in his role defending schools against sex abuse lawsuits came in the 2000, with the Kearly case.
Kearly was hired by the Warren school system in 1966, where he eventually fell in as a gym teacher. The P.E. and health teacher was one with a record of physically inappropriate behavior dating as far back as 1984, per a 2004 Metro Times article. When he reportedly slammed a middle school boy against a locker by his throat, he received a “verbal reprimand” from his boss at the school. The next year, 1985, he was moved to Flynn Middle School, where his behavior worsened. The first year, a girl told school administrators Kearly looked down her shirt and the shirt of another student; although both accounts had witnesses, the principal did nothing.
In 1990, 11 Flynn students confirmed the account of a girl with mental health issues that Kearly routinely bullied—even after she threatened to overdose on drugs as a result of his actions, the school said they would not reprimand him, instead just asking him to stop. Sterling Heights police pressed assault and battery charges, but the girl’s parents didn’t let her testify in court and the school did not provide their notes from its interviews with the 11 students, so Kearly was acquitted in 1991; the school also expunged his record of his 95-day suspension so that it would instead appear as a “conference leave of absence.” After the case, sex crimes unit investigating officer Thomas Dettloff said the school district was “minimally cooperative,” and that he was certain Kearly was a “pedophile,” per the Times.
The trend of troubling behavior continued at the multiple elementary schools Kearly worked at until 1998, when three eight-year-old girls accused Kearly of molesting them. In 2000, the three girls and their families sued Kearly—the lawsuit, which can be read in full at the bottom of this post, came about when one of the girls asked her mother “if she had big boobs?” The girl then proceeded to tell her mother of Kearly’s abuse, per the lawsuit:
“She was afraid looking. She was teary eyed and she said that she was a special helper to Mr. Kearly and that he had been touching her, and I asked where and to show me, and she showed me that he touched her on her buttocks and her breast area … and her pubic area.”
After resigning from his P.E. gig in the light of fourth-degree sexual conduct charges, Kearly pleaded no contest. The families sued Warren consolidated schools and three administrators—superintendent Paul Stamatakis, superintendent James Clor, and elementary school principal Jerry Maiorano—for gross negligence, failing to properly investigate Kearly’s actions, and violating their Title IX rights by not ensuring their constitutional right to be free of sexual abuse.
In the ensuing legal battle, Dan Kelly, then just an attorney and not a Michigan State board of trustees member, defended the school system.
What does stand out—in light of him being elected to the Michigan State board in 2016 with the Larry Nassar case was jumping to the forefront of their agenda—are his court-room tactics when cases like these came across his desk. In the Kearly case, Kelly tried to convince jurors that the district could in no way be held responsible for the abuse by saying that the P.E. teacher’s actions weren’t as bad as they could have been. Per WXYZ, Kelly’s defense featured this argument:
“the touching was always on the outside of the clothing… was very brief and…there’s very strong evidence that (the girls) didn’t know that it was inappropriate when it occurred.”
Kelly’s defense failed, and the jury awarded the victims $2.1 million.
Next came the case of Roderick Reese. In 2004, Reese, a teacher at Wilde Elementary School (part of the Warren school system) and former principal in Southfield, was charged by the Macomb County Prosecutor’s Office with 16 counts of second-degree criminal sexual conduct and five counts of assault with intent to commit second-degree sexual misconduct—he was able to work out a plea deal that resulted in him pleading no contest on one count of second-degree criminal sexual conduct, meaning he’d have to serve just five years probation and go on the sexual offenders registry.
Then, the families of the 10 girls—aged nine to 11, all of whom accused Reese of groping their inner thighs, breasts, and buttocks—took him and Warren Schools to federal court.
According to the suit, which can also be read at the bottom of this post, two teachers witnessed Reese touching the children and did not report it; the principal, Patricia Prill, also did nothing after a teacher aide directly reported seeing Reese holding the girls on his laps against their will.
Kelly was once again retained by Warren schools to defend the school system and its employees named in the suit: Clor, Prill, and the two teachers, Jacqueline Rybinski and Christopher Thomson. Again, the case he built their defense on largely adhered to basic procedural standards. But it was after the attorneys of the victims began leaking updates about the case to the news media that he then turned to a more questionable tactic.
In response to their attempts to publicize the case via news outlets, Kelly requested, in a motion that can be read in full at the bottom of this post, that the anonymity of the victims, all of whom were minors, be repealed—put simply and stripped of the legalese, he was asking the judge to reveal the identities of the children to the public because he and the school system were upset at the tactics of their opposing lawyers:
The judge denied his motion. All of the girls eventually settled the lawsuit with Warren consolidated, with the school agreeing to pay an undisclosed amount that the girls were to begin receiving when they turned 18; Reese was later convicted in a criminal case.
Just to be clear, Kelly fulfilling his professional duties as a lawyer and defending a party accused of self-induced ignorance is not, in and of itself, any sort of negative mark against his record. Being paid to provide legal assistance to school systems is not a crime, nor is his profession to be viewed as an indictment of his or anyone else’s moral being. His job was to defend his clients to the absolute best of his abilities. That said, Kelly’s specific actions within that role still feel like the exactly wrong kind of person to lead the university past the Larry Nassar scandal.
Kelly and the Michigan State trustees are now tasked with running the university and finding a new president and athletic director, as Lou Anna Simon and Mark Hollis both resigned after public calls from Michigan State students and victims of Larry Nassar put pressure on the board. The board’s short history in dealing with the fallout from the case has been spotty, at best—it was just three weeks ago that trustee Joel Ferguson said he supported Simon because she was a good fundraiser, adding that “there’s so many more things going on at the university than just this Nassar thing.” When WXYZ reached out to Morgan McCaul, a victim of Nassar’s, and shared these two specific court actions with her, she responded by saying it was “gross” and opining that “when this is a leader and essentially the architect of campus climate, I don’t know how you can send your kids to Michigan State University and feel safe.”
Still, while this story seems like simply another of dozens of examples why the Michigan State administration should be gutted, if Michiganders want to point a finger at someone for placing an administration-first defense lawyer in their top ranks, they’ll be pointing it at themselves—because Michigan State runs partisan elections for its board of trustee slots, Michigan voters elected Kelly, the Republican candidate, over the incumbent Democrat Dianne Byrum for the open board position in 2016.
You can find the lawsuits and Kelly’s motion below: