Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Wall or No Wall

Every once in a while one meets a teacher whose dedication to the craft not only inspires children to learn, but inspires other teachers to be better teachers. Many people thought Chris Burton was such a teacher.  I was one.

Those with a propensity to describe things in fantastical terms said he had a “gift”. Chris could wade through personal attacks and bureaucracy to the door of his classroom, and then sit down with kids there. I use the word “door” metaphorically as his classroom was open, and lacked both a door and a wall to hang one on. When teachers spoke about the amazing way he was able to hold the attention of his students it was because they saw him doing it as they walked past his classroom. His classroom was on the way to the front office so everyone walked past it several times a day. In it were kids who were smiling, and laughing, and learning.  I know; I walked by several times and saw them.

Chris was a short round man straight out of a college that I believe was somewhere in the Midwest. He had a look about him that said “I have tasted white bread, and loved it”. He had a bright red apple tattooed on his arm. Chris was also gay.

Chris was gay in a “let me talk about my boyfriend’s idiosyncrasies” way. He would sometimes show pictures of himself in drag to co-workers and friends under the pretense of asking if these shoes went with that dress. He sometimes wore eyeliner to work. It was no surprise that his actions raised the heckles of the morally condemning predominantly LDS community he taught for.

Chris was outgoing and gregarious. He cemented a small group of other new teachers.  They would “hang out” watching “American Idol” or "Deal or No Deal" which they would then affably argue about for days. Chris had intimate friends, and close friends, and friendly acquaintances. He would confide intimate personal things with people as proof of his acceptance of them. Chris was sensitive, and caring, and vulnerable. Friends sought to protect him from the attacks he suffered through. He thrived on that protection.

One mutual friend recalled providing Chris with pre-moistened makeup remover towelettes to so he could quickly remove eyeliner before meeting with some parents. The same individual recalled admonishing Chris when he had one of his third-grade students on his lap during story time: “I know there is nothing wrong with that, but you’ve got to think about what it could look like to someone who might be out to get you”.

AYD was not in his class, but we knew many of the parents of kids in his class; they often played together. In Tooele there is a bond that forms between non-LDS parents. It starts with commiseration about the exclusion of our kids from social activities. Then as the kids play together more often it becomes the more normal friendship between parents of kids who are friends. The parents thought the world of Chris.

One parent, a father who had been through a messy divorce, hired Chris to watch his kids between school and when he came home. Chris provided enrichment activities, and the father said he was worth every penny “extra" that he charged. Sometimes the father’s work would take him away for extended trips, and Chris would watch the kids for days at a time.

The teacher of AYDs class was young like Chris. She was also from the Midwest, and part of the American Idol group. She was attractive, and intelligent, and it should have come as no surprise when Chris announced with enthusiasm that he was in love with her. Of course it was a surprise since Chris had been flamboyantly defining himself as a very gay male. Within what seemed like days they were off for a suggestively romantic getaway to San Diego. We were going to be in Southern California at the same time. We made plans to potentially meet up. Chris talked whimsically about what it would take to have a Catholic wedding.

When we got the phonecall it was too late to meetup, and Chris related that the Tooele county school system had called him, and that he was under investigation for fondling his students. We told him that we believed him. I think that phonecall was the last time we spoke with Chris Burton.

When we returned to UT we spoke with the parents that knew Chris, and they all agreed that he was being persecuted for being gay or not being gay anymore, or whatever. We contacted several school system representatives who told us that they could not speak about it because of the investigation, but that there was “absolutely nothing for any parents to worry about”. One mentioned the sparsity of walls in Chris’s classroom, and remarked that: “nothing very serious could have happened without someone seeing”.

Then we heard that Chris had been taken to jail.

Apparently one parent who felt that there was something wrong with the way Chris had interacted with her son had bypassed what she felt was a school administration stonewall, and gone straight to the police. They did a cursory investigation, charged Chris, threw him in jail, and then ramped up a full-scale investigation. Kids were called in to testify.

Something about Chris being in jail made the situation suddenly real. The “American Idol” group began attempting to organize visits to Chris in jail. The effort sputtered and died.

AYDs pretty young teacher was the first to go silent.

A couple days later one of the playdate friend group whose son was in Chris’s class called for a several hour sob-studded phonecall. She related the story her son had told the investigators. It was all true she related. Chris had been molesting her son while she was simultaneously telling anyone who would listen how great Chris was as a teacher. She felt violated. Worse, she felt like she had violated her son.

The school system called an emergency meeting of parents. The multipurpose room was filled beyond capacity. There was yelling. Most of all there were shrill declarations that “nobody could have known” and “it is not our fault”. Later some of those same folks would declare that they “knew all along”.

The preliminary hearing put eight kids on the stand. We heard that there were stories of Chris doing such inappropriate actions as “helping kids in the bathroom”.

We were confidently told that kids were safe in the school. We were told that “nothing really serious had happened”. We were told, and we were told, and we were told. Somehow the words from the heartsick playdate mom held more truth.

More playdate moms began relating issues. We added it up, and realized that most, if not all, of Chris’s alleged victims were not LDS. Was he targeting children whom he saw as having a lesser standing in the community? Did he think they would remain silent?

Some of the boys apparently felt dirty because they responded physically to Chris’s fondling. They were teased for being gay. It may be that some boys did not want to be part of the investigation because of their fears about being teased or judged.

Then we heard that Chris had plead guilty.

The School offered “homework sessions” open to everyone instead of counseling. Some of the teachers who knew that “no-one could have known” what was happening got a little extra pay for helping the students. I don’t know if any of the primary victims ever attended the sessions.

The father who had Chris watch his kids lost custody of them to the mother that had abandoned them.  I was told that Chris's actions were used in obtaining the verdict.

It is true that I don’t necessarily know all the responses that the school system engaged to counter the damage Chris had done. None of the parents involved believe that anything would have been done if the police had not been in charge of the investigation. Certainly there was not a widely advertised response; the school system appeared to be taking a “make this go away” attitude instead of a “lets make this better” one. Parents were struck by the efficient damage control and blaming juxtaposed against a lack of responsibility or nurturing.

Burton was sentenced to 30 years in prison, and I think that is where he is now.

The boy’s he abused have grown up alongside AYD, but in the shadow of these events. People have whispered “Kids who are abused are more likely to abuse kids when they grow up” and “he just preyed on boys he knew were gay”. Yahoos convince them to strip their shirts off and cover themselves in paint under the pretense of playing the part of Native Americans at the Salem Witch Trials.

Most of the victims have healed or will heal in silence.

The community pretends that by pretending it never happened that they live in a community where things like this cannot happen. We retreat to the place where parents cannot demand action for the appearance of wrong. Somehow we must accuse, and then substantiate our claims as if the schools were a court of law. Somehow demanding that the schools address the appearance of inappropriate activity is confrontational and disruptive.

I was wrong in supporting the innocence of Chris Burton. It was a choice I made, and I did the wrong thing. If I was a parent who had instead gone forward with fears, and then was proved incorrect,I would at least today be confident that I had done the right thing.

As parents the burden of proof is not on us to prove that our children are unsafe in school. The burden of proof is on the schools to prove that they are safe, and then prove it again whenever questioned.


LanceThruster said...

I came across this site by accident while reading other atheist material (I think I was searching for info on the rules against gay kissing in Salt Lake Temple Square) and am an instant fan. In addition to loving the blog name, the mutual experience of walking away from my own group's prevailing narrative of existence...I am particularly impressed with the blog writer's thoughtfulness and introspection, especially in light of the fact that we are all flawed human beings to some extent, and must take that into account in regards to our claims of "certainty", whatever they are.

My since best regards,


adult onset atheist said...

Thank you for the kind words LanceThruster. Your comment made me feel so good I corrected two typos in the post, and that is something I rarely do.

The Moose said...

Excellent. So happy you are writing on Huffingtonpost!

Annie said...

Yes. As parents, it is your job to ensure that the school is making sure that your children are safe. Unfortunately, you cannot be sure the school is doing its job unless you are personally (and collectively) monitoring its performance and holding it accountable. Naturally, the school will not appreciate this oversight. Although it should, as it's in the school's best interests as well as the children's.

I just read and highly recommend "The Gift of Fear" by Gavin De Becker, which has some excellent material on conducting such due diligence on your school and its safety program.

Anonymous said...

Why the **** are you living in Utah? From everything I read in your blog, its the land of clueless morons and you should hit the road for some radical crazy place like ... the midwest.

Anonymous said...

Well thought out.

Sorry this happened to your school. Its hard to think the best of people after something like this happens, but try.

Hard to find the line between trust and protection.


The Gift of Fear is a great book.