By most accounts, including his own, Laurence E. "Shayne" Hill was a serial molester. And he had an endless supply of potential victims—his elementary-school students. For at least the past four of the 20 years he taught fifth grade at Broadview-Thomson Elementary School in northeast Seattle, the 55-year-old teacher kissed, caressed, rubbed, fondled, or digitally explored at least three but as many as seven grade-school girls. The children were mostly too young to know his touching and assaults were inappropriate or illegal. After one student saw Hill place his hand on another fifth-grader's buttocks, she asked the girl, "Mr. Hill touched your butt. Don't you care?" Not really, said the girl.
Seattle police Detective Donna Stangeland heard similar responses from other kids, including a girl who turned out to have been Hill's sexual victim for three years. She was initially upset and reluctant to tell the uncomfortable secrets she had kept from her mom and others—as Hill, in choosing child victims, likely counted on. Eventually, the girl revealed a bold pattern of classroom molestation by Hill, including the time he sat next to her during a movie, slid his hand under her bottom, and kept it there throughout the screening. He took that to another level during another school movie incident. Ultimately, it was suspect Hill, a teacher for 32 years, who did all the talking. He told Stangeland of his special bond with kids, befriending, stroking, holding, and hugging them. Maybe he had a problem, he said. Then he confessed all.
Not that it was much of a secret. Since Hill pleaded guilty to child molestation in King County Superior Court Nov. 7, more details have emerged suggesting Hill was the school district's staff serial child molester who performed regularly and publicly. According to police and court records, including a civil lawsuit filed against the district Nov. 16 on behalf of a student, Hill's actions were known for years to other teachers, students, and even a few parents, who, while suspicious, never put it all together. Hill was also admonished by three principals about some of his conduct, yet he remained in the classroom. Seattle attorney Anne Bremner, who filed the lawsuit on behalf of the former Broadview-Thomson student, says one principal warned Hill "for years" that "he was going to get into trouble" if he wasn't more cautious about his touching. The district, argues Bremner, showed "deliberate indifference to rape and repeated sexual abuse" of her client, who was 11 at the time and today is a ninth-grader. Bremner says the district failed to heed repeated warnings about a teacher who groomed the children he was paid to protect, who had a rubber breast and penis on a stick in his unlocked desk drawer.
This isn't the first time a teacher has been caught molesting a student, of course, and it probably won't be the last. There are more than 5,000 employees and 46,000 students in the Seattle Public Schools. But this might be one of the most brazen examples of abuse. What is the district doing to reassure parents at Broadview-Thomson and other schools that its apparent lack of oversight wasn't reckless, and that it is taking precautions to safeguard other children? Says school district communications director Peter Daniels: "We do have training sessions to try and help teachers and parents to recognize grooming signs. In general, sexual predators groom their victims and also groom those that are around them. The training is to help people try to recognize those signs." He says the district is concerned and saddened by the revelations about Hill. "Any kids who are hurt during our care, we are regretful. It's a horrible thing, and completely opposite of what we try to do," Daniels says. "We try to help kids learn and grow. We have no way to guarantee that all staff will be good people, though the majority of them are."
The undoing of Hill wasn't the result of any special district vigilance. It grew out of an apparently accidental discovery: Hill was seen fondling a girl when her mother walked into the classroom to bring the girl her lunch last April. The mother was taken aback to discover Hill with his arm around her daughter's waist and his hand on her buttocks. The district launched an investigation and later called in police. The investigation turned up incidents witnessed by students and other teachers as far back as 2001. There was only one complaint on record, however: The school's principal, according to police, reported a staff member in 2004 had seen Hill holding hands with two fifth-grade students. The principal says she warned Hill in writing about inappropriately crossing the boundaries between teachers and students. Surprisingly, Hill told her he had been warned by previous principals—but only verbally. "People did indicate that they brought these problems forward," says spokesperson Daniels. "We feel the district did take appropriate action and that there were changes as a result. As to whether or not we did the right thing, those things will have to be determined in court," he said, referring to the lawsuit.
As the investigation progressed, police questioned in all seven current and former students about Hill. Three girls conclusively reported inappropriate or sexual contact. In particular, the girl who had reluctantly discussed how Hill slid his hand under her bottom during a movie began to understand she'd been molested and agreed to tell more. As Detective Stangeland wrote in her report, referring to the girl by initials:
. . . Detective Stangeland told X.X. that it was important to get all the information about her relationship with [suspect] Hill. X.X. gave some additional detail regarding touching by Hill. X.X. said that starting in the fall of 2001, when X.X. was 10 years old, Hill began to touch X.X.'s "crotch." She said that this started when she was a 5th grader in his class. This occurred numerous times between October 2001 and just before X.X. entered the 7th grade in 2003 (when she was 12). X.X. said that all the touching . . . occurred when she was sitting on his lap or knee. Hill would reach between her legs from behind. . . . During movies he would leave it there for the duration of the movie. . . .
. . . On 05/03/05 Detective Stangeland talked to Hill on the phone regarding X.X.'s additional disclosure that Hill touched her crotch. Hill denied having a memory of touching X.X.'s crotch, but said it was possible that it happened and he had blocked out the memory. He said that he touched her inner thigh where it meets her body and that he came "pretty dang close." . . . He said that X.X. would not lie or fabricate this report. He said he plans to retire from teaching.
In her report, the detective said Hill "admits to an impulse-control problem that led to the inappropriate touching. He admitted there is a sexual connotation to the touching." Hill apparently had become aware of the gravity of his actions. When he was finally arrested in Edmonds last May, according to court papers, police found him with a living will and what appeared to be a note for a planned suicide. It said "the harm I have caused goes beyond anything I thought I could bear." Besides first- and second-degree molestation, Hill was charged with two counts of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes. He pleaded guilty to all counts Nov. 7. He faces up to life in prison, but the King County Prosecutor's Office has agreed to recommend that Hill, who has no criminal record, serve nine years and become a registered sex offender. Currently behind bars at the King County Jail, Hill is to be sentenced Dec. 2.