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Drinking, groping alleged during Garfield HS trip; choir teacher faces termination

Garfield High School students protest Seattle Public Schools' recommendation to fire a beloved choir teacher on Wednesday afternoon. (Jillian Raftery/KIRO Radio)

Dozens of students held signs and sang on the steps of Garfield High School Wednesday afternoon to protest the district’s recommendation to fire a beloved choir teacher.

It all stems from an alleged sexual assault that at least two female students reported during a March field trip to New Orleans.

According to district investigators, a teenage boy allegedly molested at least one girl on a bus and groped two girls in a hotel room.

Investigators say teacher Carol Burton, who organized the choir trip, violated several of the district’s policies for field trips that are designed to keep students safe. Those violations include disobeying rules to keep boys and girls separate. Burton allegedly drank alcohol on multiple occasions.

Parent chaperones were also drinking, according to the district. One night, a parent was visibly drunk and had to be helped back to a hotel room. Another allegedly had an inappropriate encounter with a student while under the influence.

“When adults decide to deliberately violate these policies, procedures and protocols, they are putting their needs above those of our students. Because, again, the safety of them is our top priority,” District Spokeswoman Stacy Howard said. “Because this is a personnel matter, we cannot comment further.”

But many students, parents, and alumni say Burton’s 14-year-career outshines this one misstep, even though the consequences turned out to be dire. Burton’s students spoke out about how she worked hard to be inclusive of students of all backgrounds, and inspired many to go on to pursue careers in the arts.

“We’ve witnessed students lose educational opportunities, motivation, and drive without Ms. Burton in the classroom,” senior Grace Corsi said. Grace is a member of the choir and attended the New Orleans trip.

Though Grace agrees Burton violated district policy, she said Burton should not be held accountable for the lapse in student supervision.

Many say the policies themselves are too cumbersome, requiring random nightly bed checks to ensure students stay in their rooms from their curfew at 10:30 p.m. to sunrise.

“This is a bit of an injustice,” Garfield High School PTSA Co-President Kirk Wohlers said. “Because no teachers are going to want to take a field trip again and the kids are going to be suffering, again, from what’s happening at the district level. We live in a litigious society and that’s a problem, but getting rid of a teacher is not going to solve this problem.”

The Seattle School District recently overhauled field trip policies after a reported sexual assault on a 15-year-old girl in 2012 during a trip to Olympic National Park.

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