In Firing Choir Teacher, Seattle Public Schools Is Sending a Terrible Message to Teen Girls

A week and a half ago, sacked teacher Carol Burton won an appeal to get back her job teaching choir at Garfield High School. But according to her lawyer Kevin Peck, Burton still hasn’t returned to the classroom. This afternoon, Burton and her supporters will ask the school board to fix that.

A week and a half ago, sacked teacher Carol Burton won an appeal to get back her job teaching choir at Garfield High School. But according to her lawyer Kevin Peck, Burton still hasn’t returned to the classroom. This afternoon, Burton and her supporters will ask the school board to fix that.

Burton was fired by Seattle Public Schools superintendent Larry Nyland last year because she violated district policies (consuming small amounts of alcohol and not enforcing gender segregation and curfews) on a field trip on which female students were groped by a male student. The student who groped them had been previously expelled from a private school for similar transgressions. Despite contractual obligations and state law to the contrary, the district did not inform Burton or Garfield of this fact before the field trip. Over the past none months, Burton has fought to overturn her termination, with the support of many students and their parents. At the end of April, she won: the hearing examiner did find that Burton’s “misconduct was significant” but not terminable, and ordered her reinstatement.

But according to Peck, the district needs some encouragement to comply with that order. He says that at 4 p.m. at the district’s John Stanford building office, the parents, students and faculty backing up Burton will ask the Seattle School Board to enforce the hearing examiner’s decision and return Burton to work posthaste. “She’s been out for over a year and her program is collapsing,” says Peck. “They desperately need her to come back” as the season for musical theater begins, he says.

Last year, we published an editorial by contributor Caitlin Sussman decrying Burton’s termination. As Sussman wrote then, “it appears that [Burton] is being made scapegoat by an administration terrified of a lawsuit” based on prior, and awful, field trip problems. Court documents now back this up: “Superintendent Nyland testified that the District’s liability could be ‘huge’ if Ms. [sic] Burton were in charge of a field trip during which [another] sexual assault occurred,” wrote the hearing examiner in his ruling reversing her dismissal.

As Sussman wrote, Nyland’s decision to prioritize legal liability arguably compounded, rather than addressed, the problem of rape culture in Seattle public schools. According to an internal district investigation of the Burton trip, the young women who were groped didn’t initially report the groping because “they were afraid this would get Ms. Burton in trouble and might jeopardize future field trips.”

“[Burton’s] termination,” Sussman observed, “serves only to confirm the stated fears of her students: that the price of their safety was her job…By its present course of action—punishing the choir teacher, potentially restricting future field trips—the school is not actually addressing any of the issues that contributed to the discomfort of the female students in the choir. Instead it is teaching these girls that there’s a choice, and that if you want to keep the things you love, you also have to keep your head down and not rock the boat.”

Asked about her pending reinstatement last week, Burton thanked the “village” of support she’s received from the Garfield community. “I’m overjoyed, and I can’t believe that we’ve done this,” she said, noting that it’s rare for a dismissed teacher to win appeal. Yet she acknowledged that “there’s a lot of burned bridges that have happened…Garfield is an activist school, and I think there’s been some frustration that decisions that the district has made in the past have been called out by Garfield staff.”

That activist culture played a large role in Burton’s successful appeal. In his ruling, the hearing examiner described the voluminous and voluble support for Burton from students, parents, and colleagues. “In sum, all testifying [Garfield] faculty members, former students, and students stated that Ms. Burton’s teaching and mentoring were exceptional and that her conduct on field trips did not place student safety at risk,” he wrote.

Burton and company will petition the school board at 4 p.m. today at the district office in the John Stanford building at 2445 3rd Ave S., by S. Lander. We have a call into the superintendent for comment.

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