Carol Burton, the Garfield choir teacher who was fired last year, is still fighting to get her job back.
In March 2015, Garfield High School choir teacher Carol Burton took her vocal-music students on a field trip to New Orleans that, after an investigation into her and her chaperones’ conduct, resulted in her dismissal.
A year later, she is in court, fighting to get her job back with an appeal to her August 2015 termination.
She was the first to take the stand Monday in what is expected to be a weeklong hearing at the King County Courthouse, and reiterated what she’s said before:
She made some mistakes during the trip, during which two teenage girls were allegedly groped by a male classmate. She said she shouldn’t have had any alcoholic drinks during the trip, and she should have communicated to her supervisors that she was concerned about the district’s policy of ensuring that males and females aren’t in each other’s hotel rooms at any time.
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But she’s also said she didn’t think those mistakes should have cost her her job. She and her lawyer cited her accomplishments, including being named the 2016 Outstanding Music Educator of the Year by the Washington State Music Education Association, Elliott Bay Region.
And while Burton made mistakes, she and her lawyer said district officials made mistakes, too.
“(Burton) is a scapegoat for their own lapses,” said her attorney, Kevin Peck.
Burton, 51, was fired for violating several district policies, including drinking alcohol, which isn’t allowed during any school activity, and failing to enforce the policy that prohibits male and female students from visiting each other’s hotel rooms at any time.
Burton was faulted for allowing female and male students to be in each other’s rooms before curfew. A male student, who had been expelled from a private Seattle school for inappropriate touching, allegedly groped two female students while he was in their room.
Burton testified Monday that she let the students be in each other’s rooms because she felt the district’s policy discriminated against gay and transgender students. About 10 percent of her choir students are gay, she said. When she read the policy out loud at a parent meeting before the trip, she said attendees scoffed and asked, “What does that mean for the gay kids?”
“This policy does not recognize the existence of gay students,” she testified. “How can you enforce this rule and not be discriminatory?”
She trusted her students, she said.
And the district has admitted that while one employee knew the male student’s history, it never shared that information with Burton or Garfield administrators.
There are several other allegations of misconduct, district lawyer Greg Jackson said in his opening statement. The district found that Burton failed to prohibit chaperones from drinking alcohol, enforce curfew or conduct random room checks. She also drank alcohol in the presence of students.
Burton testified that she had two and a half drinks in five days, which included two sips of wine she had at a large dinner table in the presence of students.
“It was a mistake, absolutely,” she said.
Superintendent Larry Nyland is slated to testify later this week about why he fired Burton.
Teachers and students will speak about Burton’s work as a choir teacher. She is credited with building the award-winning program, which now has more than 60 students.
Garfield vocal-music students have gone through this school year with substitute teachers and are planning a spring concert without a director.