Saturday, August 08, 2015

Garfield Choir Incident Updates

I went back and reviewed my notes and the public disclosure requests I made about this case.

- Beryl Miller, the SPS staffer who was the Civil Rights/ Title IX Compliance Officer at the time of the incident is no longer in that position. She was the SPS Behavioral and Emotional Team Supervisor. Whether she still has that position within SPS, I don't know.

- My question to SPS: Beryl Miller said she spoke with Student 1's doctor and psychologist but she only references notes about the call to the doctor. Are there any notes/documentation about Ms. Miller's call to the psychologist? (Please note: I know under FERPA/HIPPA I cannot have the notes or documentation. I am ONLY asking if they exist - meaning did she call both Student 1's doctor and psychologist?)

SPS Answer: Ms. Miller has confirmed that no additional documents exist beyond the email records provided as exhibits to the investigative report (see pg 54-57 of the previously provided “GHS Exhibits Final” PDF).

It appears Miller asked for permission to talk to both Student 1's doctor and psychologist but only spoke with the doctor.

- SPS paid Yarmuth Wilsdon PLLC $15,425 for the investigation.

- In the Exhibits section of the investigative report, there are 28 documents. One of them is a letter from Ms. Burton's lawyers, Eugene N. Bolin, Jr. and Kevin A. Peck dated April 17, 2015. The letter outlines their concerns over the investigation including the fact that they don't believe the investigator is truly "independent."

They also say that :

"Throughout the field trip, Ms. Burton exercised reasonable judgment and has demonstrated total candor in the investigation which has followed. The primary factual question in our view is this: what could have been done to prevent Student 1's alleged misconduct from occurring?"
They state that because neither Garfield High nor Ms. Burton were ever informed of the student's previous conduct:

"We believe that this is a complete defense to any claim that Ms. Burton played any causative role in Student 1's alleged misconduct during the trip." 
I am not a lawyer so I don't know what "causative" means legally.  But, it appears that the lawyers were building up this idea that nothing could have been done by Burton or the chaperones to prevent Student 1's actions.  I think the real issue is what could have been done to discourage or lessen the chances of it happening?  (We'll get to the issue of whether Student 1 should have been on the trip at all.)

They ask many valid questions about what was on Student 1's transcript and note that Blanchett was required to answer two questions for any student who transfers into SPS: 1) past/pending disciplinary actions; history of violent or disruptive behavior; past, current, or pending criminal or juvenile court proceedings; or history of gang affiliation? 2) Does the student currently have, or has the student had in the past, a restraining order filed against him/her?

They also say that Student 1's parents were required state that the information on the SPS enrollment form was "true and accurate." As well, Ms. Burton's lawyers asked if SPS had "certified" that information as the enrollment form states it would.

But here's where I found the fuzziness around what Ms. Burton would or would not have done had she known of Student 1's issues:

Had this critical information been provided to Ms Burton, Student 1 very likely would not have been permitted to gone on the field trip to New Orleans. And even if Ms. Burton had permitted Student 1 to go on the trip, she would have had very serious discussions with him first, to satisfy herself that he would strictly conform to the behavior expected of all students on the trip. He also would have been much more closely supervised on the trip. Ms. Burton specifically described all of this during her interview with you on Tuesday.

So there was some discussion - at some point during this meeting  -that Burton might have considered allowing him on the trip even if she had known of his past behavior. 

About the drinking, there is language about Burton not wanting to "upset the apple cart" or "cause a problem among her dedicated volunteer-chaperones, so she had one cocktail with them."

We believe the (sic) SPS has over-looked the multiple roles a faculty member is expected to fulfill when leading a large, multi-day field trip. Ms. Burton's first role, of course, was to protect the safety of the 39 students on the trip. However, she was also responsible for leading the 8 adult chaperones and obtaining their best efforts on the trip.

Continuing on:
The key, we believe, it (sic) not whether a violation of a rule occurred, but whether the faculty and chaperones exercised reasonable judgment (not perfect judgment) at all times during the trip. Under all of the circumstances present (sic) here, we strongly believe Ms. Burton and her chaperones did indeed exercise reasonable judgment (with the possible exception of the physician-chaperones who we understand has apologized for the incapacitation - incident.)I appreciate they are lawyers trying to do their job but what circumstances were there that made Burton feel the chaperones had to drink?  That the kids needed a later curfew?  That they could freely mingle in each others' rooms?  I'm not getting that part at all.

Then the lawyers go to the rule about not allowing students of the opposite sex in the same hotel room.

On one evening during the trip we understand that Student 1 was in a hotel room with the two girls he allegedly victimized, along with a third girl. This was permitted by the chaperone staff, but only after Student 1 complained that he was "uncomfortable" with his own male roommates. The three girls were asked by another chaperone if they had any objection to Student 1 joining them in their room to watch TV before curfew. The girls not only agreed, but welcomed Student 1 into their room. It was sometime later that evening, that Student 1 allegedly began acting out and touching one of the girls after they objected. 

This section made me a little queasy because it almost sounds like they are either finding "causal" reasoning that the girls allowed Student 1 in their room or maybe even blame them.

Another interesting argument from her lawyers (I believe referring to Burton's feelings that students of different sexual orientations should not have to room with people they are uncomfortable with):

"The reasonableness of a strict application of the rule quickly begins to disappear under these kinds of unique circumstances. Further, the rule promulgated by the SPS does not provide for any discretion by the chaperones, much less consideration, for such unique circumstances. Faculty members and chaperones are therefore left to exercise their best judgment on a case-by-case basis - which is precisely what they did. They should not be criticized later for doing so, and certainly not disciplined."

I think they err in their thinking because it is not the rule that is ambiguous but rather, the question of who rooms with whom (and who decides).  The rule is clear.  I don't think there needs to be discretion on the part of the teacher leader or chaperones except in the case of moving same-sex roommates around if there is an issue.

The investigative report itself says this:

Ms Burton admitted that she did not raise this concern with any GHS or SPS District official, before or after the trip.

They call her ignoring SPS field trip regulations "technical violations" and that the "mitigating circumstances outweigh the violations."

One interesting key point that I'm not sure what to think about the issue of how to assign students to rooms. Assigning by sexual orientation would be highly problematic. Burton's lawyers try to say that if something had happened to Student 1 in his room and Burton had known of his "discomfort" with his roommates previous to that, she would have gotten blamed for that.

Problem is that the student may have been reassigned where he slept (that part is unclear to me) but he still was in a room with boys.  And, this was not about where he slept - it's about where he hung out. (To note, Student 1's inappropriate behavior on the Blanchet field trip was with a boy; the Garfield incident involved girls.)

His second alleged assault on one or both girls (and apparently the most egregious) occurred on the bus ride to the airport at the end of the trip.
Note: the investigative report does not back up that the bus trip behavior was the most egregious - what happened in the hotel room seems far worse.

They then make this leap:

Even if Ms. Burton and the chaperones had not consumed a drop of alcohol, the result would have been the same.

I would agree I don't think the drinking was the cause of his behavior but the lax behavior of the adults certainly didn't help.

As to the issue about whether Student 1 possibly felt more enabled by the lax application of district rules, from the investigative report:
Student 1 also spoke about noticing the drinking by chaperones and said it was a "relaxed" atmosphere on the field trip.


Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Melissa Westbrook said...

Anonymous, no anonymous comments - next time give yourself a name.

But if kids are told to "not do stupid things" and it could hurt programs if stuff happens AND gets reported, that's not the field trip atmosphere that probably gets the best outcomes.

Melissa Westbrook said...

reprinting for anonymous

The environment at Garfield is toxic if kids are reluctant to report assaults.
The school needs to examine it's overall culture.

Anonymous said...

MW, I don't know what the girls were thinking if they felt reluctant to report the incidents. However, I was at the pre-trip mandatory parent meeting. The rules for the students were emphasized. The seriousness of following the rules was emphasized. So if a person hears that it is important to follow the rules because consequences could be important for the program, that is not telling them that they should not report violations. Nobody had knowledge in advance about the future inappropriate behavior of the student. At the trip meeting nobody said don't tell anyone if something goes wrong. Instead they said we need to follow the rules so that these trips are able to happen in future years.
GHS choir mom

mirmac1 said...

I'm not blaming the girls, rather responding to a previous comment. Many girls are reluctant to report assaults, assert themselves firmly, complain, get angry etc in ALL high schools. We must train our daughters to do this. Not every encounter will be chaperoned. I'm so glad my daughter has great instincts to be wary around certain guys.

In advance of a field trip, I informed the teacher that a boy should closely supervised based on behavior I witnessed recently. My expectation is that the teacher would at least inform the chaperone responsible for the group he was in, if not all of them. But without that knowledge there was nothing and no way safeguards could be put in place.

Anonymous said...

I am not buying the logic behind this statement:

The environment at Garfield is toxic if kids are reluctant to report assaults.
The school needs to examine it's overall culture.

If kids love the choir program and are reluctant to report assaults because in this situation such reporting might hurt the program, it does not necessarily follow that the environment at Garfield is toxic.

If the New Orleans trip teacher and chaperones had followed the rules they signed on to follow, reporting by students would have been far more likely.

It appears that the students, with the exception of one or two, did a great job of following within the permissive boundaries allowed by trip supervisors. The failure to report may have been caused by the fear of exposing several rule violations by trip supervisors.

I do not see a "toxic culture" but in this situation a culture of viewing field trip rules as just weak recommendations, which are optional. Ms. Burton's legal team's arguments in her defense also seem to revolve around rules as "recommendations subject to interpretation".

It seems Ms. Burton has a history of viewing field trip rules as recommendations subject to her interpretation.

When people's children are on a trip with written rules, it is a parent's expectation that those rules will be enforced. Does Ms. Burton still not understand that?

OMG ... in retrospect 45 years ago my wife and I took small groups of children in my 7th grade class on multi-day trips of over 1000 miles each in our Dodge Van (during school vacations within the school-year). There were no written rules just an itinerary for each trip. The parents in the small rural Idaho town just trusted us with their kids (different set of kids on each trip). These were fabulous experiences for all involved. These kids had known each other since beginning school and I as their teacher was with each of these students all day from 8AM to 3PM during the school year. .... Garfield is a different world... rules are needed.

-- Dan Dempsey

Anonymous said...

- SPS paid Yarmuth Wilsdon PLLC $15,425 for the investigation.

"We believe the (sic) SPS has over-looked the multiple roles a faculty member is expected to fulfill when leading a large, multi-day field trip. Ms. Burton's first role, of course, was to protect the safety of the 39 students on the trip. However, she was also responsible for leading the 8 adult chaperones and obtaining their best efforts on the trip."

Large responsibilities and liabilities from eyes open to eyes closed with no pay. Seems like an imbalanced set up to me. She should go for a UW football coach job. Society values sports over the arts. Firing her is to harsh, and, this is throwing the arts and volunteering under the bus, which is a bigger issue.


dan dempsey said...


" Firing her is too harsh, and, this is throwing the arts and volunteering under the bus, which is a bigger issue."

About that "Bigger Issue":

In our society the arts are largely subsidized by the participants themselves or their families.

Consider sports where players are paid in developmental or minor leagues. In NYC the aspiring actors, are working a series of other jobs to support themselves while acting. The college athletic scholarships dwarf artistic scholarships in both number and dollar amount.

It is often "pay to act" in NYC theater.

So if the athletic model is followed... Ms. Burton will need to find employment as a Choir Teacher in a new location at double her current salary (Oh I forgot this is HS Choir not College Football).

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

re-posting for anon:

Anonymous said...
You are incorrect in your information. Ms. Miller spoke to both the student's mental health therapist and his psychiatrist.

MW is not incorrect she may have been misled but she was clear where she got her info. Where did you get yours and consider giving yourself an alias unless this is just a troll post which really should just be deleted.


Carol Simmons said...

I firmly believe the punishment Ms. Burton received is excessive. It is my understanding that she will appeal. I sincerely hope she does.

Melissa Westbrook said...

Then th district is incorrect b/c they are the ones who told me there was no documentation of Ms Miller speaking to the psych. If she did and didn't record it, there's another ding.

Stu said...

I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry . . . this is as hard to write as it is hard to read.
I think that the firing is justified AND necessary, especially if there are going to be any field trips in the future.

We all hate that the administration and staff get away with everything and anything, that there is seldom any action taken against anyone, and that accountability is not part of the SPS lexicon. It's also easy to compare cases and complain that, since the district didn't fire someone in the past they shouldn't fire someone now. However, we've all been clamoring for some sense of logic and fairness and Ms Burton admits she broke the rules to which she had agreed to abide.

Regardless of what she felt her socializing duties might have been, or whether or not she was "on the clock" during meals, she agree to take these students, to be responsible, and to follow the rules. These included NO ALCOHOL, a rule obviously broken by all(?) the adults, bed/room checks, which were not properly (at all?) done, and not having girls in boy's rooms and vice versa. (If you want to get into LBGTQ discussions, these rules need to be sorted out BEFORE the trip and not created on the fly.)

As GHS Choir Mom said,"the seriousness of following the rules was emphasized." Everyone agreed to the rules and those who broke them either aren't allowed to go on any more trips (students, chaperones) or get fired!

This is a great program and GHS will have to search for a great director . . . they'll find one. And when the program is ready to travel, EVERYONE will know how serious the rules are. These teachers are responsible for the lives of our students and, if they can't follow the rules we need to find ones who can.


Anonymous said...

Melissa, as a note, Barbara Nahouraii (sp?) was the interim Title IX coordinator but is now in a different HR position. Beryl Miller was and still is in the same supervisory position.


Chris S. said...

Stu, I agree. Rita's comment on the other thread was excellent (not fair since the NatureBridge teachers weren't fired) but then again, Ms. Burton had fair warning that things were going to be different. If she didn't take them seriously, THAT is a problem. There will always be extenuating circumstances. But I think your argument is the best articulation of the case in favor if firing.

Charlie Mas said...

Ms Burton's attorneys want to argue about the reasonableness of the rules because Ms Burton broke the rules.

Anonymous said...

Consideration of LGBTQ issues should be enough to end overnight field trips. It is not fair for any student to be rooming, dressing etc. with any person who may be watching undress with any potential sexual interest. This is an invasion of privacy. This is why we have gendered rooms. We have a hard enough time with bathrooms in our oversexualized culture. Overnight trips should be abolished for the modesty of straight children. I just don't see how things could work any other way. Burton was doomed to failure. If student 1 had been battered by bunk mates who felt their modesty violated she would likely have been fired as well. Our world is too complex now. These trips cannot work.


Anonymous said...

GHSchoir mom

Anonymous said...

"No matter that “Student 1 justified his touching by stating to the girls that he was [identifier].”

Could that have said “gay”? Other news outlets have reported his self-professed orientation as such, and I’ve seen that dynamic play out frequently, in my own high school and after, where a gay man feels entitled to touch with impunity because of the absence of any sexual intent. There are issues here of male ownership and female bodies that run deeply into the dark parts of culture, both on the side of Student 1 and one that of his female classmates, who were annoyed by his behavior for months but didn’t at any point feel entitled to strenuously object.

Given the repeated difficulty that Garfield seems to have with its field trips, it surprises me that there doesn’t seem to have been more effort to engage with students regarding issues of entitlement, consent, boundaries, and all those incredibly important things that will set the tone for healthy sexual encounters for years to come."

Wouldn't efforts to educate our teens about rape culture and the objectification of women have done so much more than creating and enforcing rules that have NO causative effect on assaults and reporting of assaults? The district has found yet another way to distract us from the proverbial creep behind the curtain. Or the central staffer who let him in.


TechyMom said...

Squirell! Exactly.
The problem is not the creepy behavior if the student or the outdated rooming setup the teacher tried to modernize, it's Alcohol! Rules!

I really hope the boy has learned something useful, but I suspect he has learned that blaming those who try to help you works. Is he still at Garfield? Is he still in the choir?

Patrick said...

TechyMom, what rooming setup would you like to see and how would it prevent groping or sexual incidents from happening?

Anonymous said...

Tuesday open thread?

Some random thoughts -

* District level SBAC scores are supposed to be released August 17

* Middle school social studies adoption - When will texts be in the classroom, and will teachers use them?

* Some Seattle schools are supplementing math lessons with EngageNY materials, which are of questionable quality (also called Eureka math, see "You Reeka Math" link).

Melissa Westbrook said...

Okay, I think the district is trying to play some games on who has what job. If Ms. Miller is still in her job, I'm very surprised. I'll ask for her job description because apparently she gets to use her own best judgment on issues that affect entire school communities. It's interesting that Burton gets punished for a field trip and yet Miller? (Of course, if Burton had any other outcome than being termination, we wouldn't know that either.)

The boy is expelled. I would be very surprised if he came back to any SPS high school except Interagency. I would just say that based on two separate yet similar incidents at two different high schools the young man has issues that need to be addressed. It does not appear a matter of learning a "lesson" - it would seem to go beyond that.

Anonymous said...

To Modesty, above, who said, "Overnight trips should be abolished for the modesty of straight children....".

This is just patently absurd. Straight, gay, transgender and queer kids alike have sexual feelings, and so, hopefully, do we all.

Additionally, how many "straight" children ultimately come out of the closet? Many, many. And many of those closeted kids go on field trips, having all kinds of possible feelings about their roommates, and will continue to do so in future.

Sexual feelings are not in themselves a problem. The absence of them - maybe! Their presence, no, not at all.

The problem is much, much more complex than simply having normal, natural feelings. It involves transgression, and that is an altogether different matter.


Melissa Westbrook said...

Squirrel has either adopted some statements made by another media outlet as his/her own or is the writer. I would ask that when you make comments that are NOT your own writing, to use quotes or ID the author. That is the fair thing to do.

Anonymous said...

I quoted those statements made by the Seattle Weekly writer. Sorry if the quotation marks were not apparent.


Melissa Westbrook said...

As I said at the Seattle Weekly, I think the author of the piece had not read all the documentation which contradicts some of what she wrote.

I totally agree that more needs to be done to tell kids - all both sexes and all sexual orientations - that anytime someone touches you (even if they say they are teasing) and you don't want/like it, say something. Tell them no and if they persist, tell an adult.

No one has to put up with inappropriate or unwanting touching.

Patrick said...

I'm glad you're continuing to press for what happened to Ms. Miller. Her failure led much more directly to the assaults; if Ms. Burton was fired, Ms. Miller should be too.
There shouldn't be some magic John Stanford Center shield protecting inept employees.

Anonymous said...

Patrick says Ms. Miller's actions caused the groping. RLF (on the other thread) says the boy caused Ms. Burton's firing. Apparently everyone else is to blame other than Ms. Burton. This is very strange logic to me.

In allowing the boy into the school, Beryl Miller did not cause him to grope or otherwise behave inappropriately. Admitting him to Garfield could just as easily have gone down with no further problems. His doctors explained away the prior incidents as medication-related and no longer an issue. No further issues were anticipated, and Ms. Miller did not cause them when they did occur.

By the same token, the boy's inappropriate behavior did not cause Ms. Burton to be fired. Teachers are not punished for student misbehavior. It's easy to see a scenario in which the boy behaved exactly as he did but Burton did not get fired--or even reprimanded in any way. Had she followed the rules, we would not be discussing her at all. The boy is not to blame for her firing. He is only to blame for his own behavior (and apparently he was expelled). While it's true that Ms. Burton's infractions may not have come to light had the boy's misbehavior not occurred, it's also possible that he could have behaved properly and Ms Burton still be fired. A parent could have heard about the rule breaking and contacted the district, the boy could have reported the alleged groping by a drunk chaperone, etc. He did not cause her firing--he just caused the district to find about her blatant disregard for the rules.

If you're trying to come up with causal links, the strongest is for Ms. Burton's role. While she did not cause the boy to grope, she did cause there to be an opportunity for the boy to lie on top of the girl agains her will. This seems like the first time the boy had such full-body contact with the girl, and may have emboldened him to push for more on the bus. She caused there to be a mixed gender setting in which the abuse could escalate. Through her laxity re: multiple rules, she also caused there to be fear of reporting, which could also have emboldened the boy. Ms. Burton caused him to have more unchaperoned opportunities to sexually harass/abuse the girls, and caused there to be a lower likelihood of being reported for his actions.


Patrick said...

HF, I am not saying Ms. Miller shouldn't have allowed him in the school, just putting the information that he had been expelled for groping during an overnight field trip would have alerted Garfield staff. That's what the discipline record is for. Then the trip leaders could have thought about his behavior prior to the trip, and either not allowed him on the trip or kept a close eye on him.

How likely is it that a parent would have complained at the District level about a trip on which some rules were broken but nothing bad happened as a result? I don't think that's a realistic scenario at all.

Anonymous said...

@ Patrick,
Was he expelled for groping? I found the investigator's report to include things like "sexual harassment" and "inappropriate comments". There were cryptic notes about "wanting to take a shower with another boy" and "telling girls how fine they looked in a dress". The old school's principal reported the incidents as "violations of the school's harassment policy", "similar harassing incidents", sexually inappropriate text entries on his iPad, and failure to let them search his phone to check for inappropriate photos. I may have missed it, but I didn't see anything from any of his old school's officials that specified physical contact. His mother had referred to it in her interview as inappropriate touching, although he had denied that it was on an inappropriate nature. Given what we know now I'd be inclined to think it was, but at that point, I could easily have given him the benefit of the doubt. Many teen boys are very concerned about their sexuality, and being touched by an identified or suspected gay classmate could easily set off alarms regardless of the nature of the touching. The "similar harassing incidents" noted by the principal seemed to be toward girls and based on comments he had made rather than physical contact, suggesting that the original incident might also have been more about an expression of sexual interest than actual touching. Putting a note in his record that he had been expelled for groping seems like a stretch.

It might have been accurate to include a note that he was expelled for sexual harassment and failure to turn his phone over for a search. It would have also been accurate to note that his probation included a ban on attending overnight field trips. Those both seem like accurate statements based on the investigator's report, but I don't know what SPS policies are re: what gets included in discipline notes. If a case like this is reviewed and determined to have been due to a medication issue and not an underlying mental health issue, and is reportedly not a future concern per his doctors, is he supposed to start with a clean slate or does that still get noted in his record? Is there a policy/procedure addressing that? If it was supposed to be noted, should the note have included that it was considered by his doctors to have been a medication issue, and that they felt there was no concern that he would act inappropriately in the future? And if they had put that in his file, would he really still have been banned from the field trip? It's likely they would have let him go, although they might have warned the teacher, who might have warned his chaperone. But when he reported his discomfort in his current room, and given that people thought he was gay, and given that the girls said he was ok in their room, the adults in charge during the GHS trip might have allowed him into the girls room still.


Melissa Westbrook said...

I think Miller not reporting this to anyone else (again, what is her job description that she has the sole power to decide what goes into PowerSchool?)may certainly be directly the reason why the male student was on the trip. I personally do not believe medication was the blame for his issues (and his mother seems to say the same in her part of the investigation).

"While it's true that Ms. Burton's infractions may not have come to light had the boy's misbehavior not occurred, it's also possible that he could have behaved properly and Ms Burton still be fired."


Anonymous said...

HF, you seem to be the only person who has read the investigative report and has clarity of the issues.


Melissa Westbrook said...

AT, I read everything. What did I miss?

Anonymous said...

Looks like Hale is looking for a new teacher:

Nathan Hale is currently seeking applicants to fill the open teaching positions of Jazz Band, Vocal Jazz and Choir. The position could be filled by a single person or split between 2 people depending on the qualifications and interest of the applicants. The position is posted online at: It is open for applications until August 18th. Please spread the word to any qualified applicants or people who may know of qualified applicants.

The previous teacher was on leave due to students drinking on the Reno trip and it was not handled well from what I have heard. I don't know the particulars and there was no outcry to retain the teacher. It was all pretty hush hush.