Pender County Schools releases redacted report on Topsail High wrestling coach investigation

PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) – The Pender County Board of Education has released part of its independent investigator’s report regarding the Topsail High School wrestling program.

Following the investigator’s findings, eight employees including Coach Pete Smith have faced disciplinary action for negligence and/or misconduct in their performance in the wrestling program. Chris McGee was demoted from THS Athletic Director to being a PE teacher.

The outcome of the investigation found “substantial evidence that there was sufficient cause for termination of Coach Smith, as an at-will employee or otherwise,” according to the documents.

“The board is taking this unprecedented step to ensure we can maintain the confidence of our constituents, and help all stakeholders understand the seriousness with which the board has confronted this situation,” commented Board Chairman Don Hall.

All of the following information is alleged by the report:

Financial mismanagement

Smith said he was thrown headfirst into coaching in October of 2021 and that the team ran a deficit of $2,769 in his first year which he covered out of pocket. He was then told by THS Athletic Director McGee that from now on he would not allowed to run a deficit.

He held a car wash in support of the wrestling team on June 4, 2023, at Matter More Coffee, a business he owned. It encouraged people to buy a coffee and was not an approved school fundraiser. It told people to donate to his own private Irontide Wrestling Club.

“The books (both for the THS Booster Club and THS Wrestling) do not indicate that any money from this fundraiser went to the THS wrestling program,” the investigative report states.

The Booster Club books show he handed in about $523 in cash in early 2024 nearly nine months after the fundraiser, and he did not say where the money came from at the time. He told the investigators that the money was from the car wash.

Following a school-approved fundraiser in the 2023-24 year, $13,500 was collected. $9,000 was deposited into the THS Wrestling account and another $4,500 was deposited into the Booster Club account, which is a separate entity from the school and not where funds are supposed to be distributed.

Smith says he turned the Irontide Wrestling Club program over to Chuck Johnson in 2022, but he was listed on the website until March of 2024. The program did not have a facility use agreement with the school despite using its cafeteria three days a week and using its wrestling mats. Irontide used the cafeteria practice space for free but charged up to $275 for a full season or $115 monthly. While it did donate money and gear to THS Wrestling, there was not a consistent charge or pattern of donations.

Student injury

Smith is accused of being made aware of a student’s injury in 2023 but didn’t file an incident or discipline for the injury, only making an injury report with the school three days after that didn’t explain the extent of the injury despite knowing it was broken. This report claimed the incident was “not out of anger – more horseplay.” He questioned all wrestlers the same day, though he did not witness the event.

He asked on Dec. 12, 2023, if a student could wrestle, and the assistant principal said yes. He met with officials two days later to discuss the incident, and the student was not punished by Smith, claiming it was because the student was injured and not wrestling. Smith nor the administration watched the video until Dec. 14, at which point he found it to look intentional.

Breaking NCHSAA rules

Paid assistant coach Edwin Aristizabal hosted multiple wrestling practices during dead periods which NCHSAA policy does not allow, and there were Sunday practices, which are also not allowed.

It was discovered in 2023 that athletes were practicing without physicals despite this not being allowed despite multiple reminders to Smith by Trainer Erin Kelly.

Several assistant coaches in the 2023-2024 school year didn’t complete all of their required training: Aristizabal, Dashaniq Sidbury, Lukas Engeldow, Tommy Lee, Ethan Blevins and Mike May.

Culture issues

While mostly redacted, multiple pages are spent on a bullying incident that resulted in at least one suspension this past January. Smith reportedly did not report the offending screenshots of the messages until four days after he got them.

There was a wrestling match in Chapel Hill in December of 2023 that included an incident that was “close to physical” which resulted in a suspension over the Christmas Break before they returned. It was handled internally with no formal school discipline.

Assistant Coach Engledow made comments on Instagram about a wrestler at Laney High School on Feb. 3, including, “TRASH KID,” “CHOKE BOY” AND “JACKSON BUCK WANTS YOUR LUNCH MONEY LIL BOY.” Aristizabal also commented negatively on the student: “Weren’t you the one who lost it for Laney in overtime?!”

Aristizabal and Engledow were fired, but neither were provided with a letter of termination or formal paperwork, and it is not sure if he had the authority to fire them.

Coach Blevins is accused of speaking derogatorily about a student who broke a bone, including saying he was “on the floor laughing” about it. The incident was discussed, but there was no further discipline.

Coach Jarrid Braunagel was accused of berating a wrestler after they lost a Regionals match, with Coach Mike May saying Braunagel had a student up against a wall and yelled in his face. He was terminated the next day, but there was no formal, written termination.

Title IX

Smith was told he needed to let girls wrestle with the team in the 2023-24 team, but he refused to coach girls and instead insisted he needed a female coach or moderate in the room; he said he would resign if he was forced to wrestle with a female wrestler. Sidbury was hired as a coach in response, but she had no wrestling coaching experience, and this may be a Title IX violation since there were substantially different qualifications for boys and girls.

Trainer Erin Kelly repeatedly had to explain to Smith why they needed to test for hydration with a refractometer as opposed to expired test strips. She said that Smith said she was “a distraction”, which she felt was a comment on her appearance. She was told one day, she says, to no longer attend, leading to students having to walk across the school to her, sometimes limping or bleeding.

THS Wrestling Final Exhibit List 1-2_Redacted by Nicholas Aziz on Scribd