School's culture failed to stop abuser
Broadview teachers worried about Laurence Hill's behavior with young girls, and told administrators — but their complaints died there, records show.
Seattle Times staff reporters
As a fifth-grade teacher, Laurence "Shayne" Hill was a pedophile hidden in plain view, strolling the hallways and playground with girls on his arm. Girls 10 or 11 years old would tousle his hair and tickle his belly. He'd massage their shoulders and whisper in their ears.
Hill himself described his typical target: "Bubbly, good-looking, not overconfident, not the prettiest in the class, available. They come to me." Other teachers noticed this, of course: "Moths to a light bulb," one said. Hill's favorite girls seemed to have the same body type, same hair color, same eye color.
Hill's behavior went beyond holding hands to fondling children. He ultimately admitted molesting up to 13 girls — and in 2005 was sentenced to five years to life.
In April, Seattle Public Schools settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of two of Hill's victims for $3 million. Depositions, personnel files and other records from that lawsuit expose a school's culture of fear and confusion, and they explain how Hill managed to remain a teacher for so long.
At least 30 times since the late 1980s, teachers and staff warned administrators at North Seattle's Broadview-Thomson Elementary School of their suspicions about Hill, lawyers for the two girls say. The Seattle School District disputes that figure but does admit to five warnings.
State law requires school personnel to report suspected abuse to police or Child Protective Services, but teachers kept their concerns in-house, hewing to a school policy that says go to an administrator. Once passed along, their complaints almost always died, with no investigation, no discipline, no calls to outside investigators.
Teachers who'd witnessed Hill's troubling behavior struggled with what to do. And, due to principals' lax documentation, their concerns weren't pieced together to reveal Hill for what he was.
Hill, now 58, left behind a host of teachers disillusioned about their school district — and fearful the same thing could happen again. One teacher, Mollie Boswell, said later: "I know that I can't rely on my employer to protect kids."
The school district, spokesman David Tucker said, has taken steps to prevent another Hill. In a statement about the lawsuit, the district said: "We accept responsibility and want to express a heartfelt apology to the two students involved and to their families."
The following accounts rely upon depositions and other documents recently released under a public-records request.
Parents boo; Hill stays
Hill, the son of jewelry-store owners in Connecticut, started at Broadview in 1983. He was on the second of three marriages and still several years away from entering recovery for alcoholism.
At Broadview, Hill worked to become indispensable. Name a school committee, he was on it. He fixed teachers' computers and ran the fifth-grade sleepaway camp. Parents cherished him, requesting his class more than any other.
But Hill ran afoul of one principal for, among other things, rewarding students with what he called "suck-up beads" for bringing him coffee or giving him backrubs. The principal, Zoe Jenkins, convinced then-Superintendent John Stanford in the spring of 1996 to transfer Hill. That, she believed, would rob Hill of his support among Broadview's parents and allow a new principal to "more carefully" supervise him.
But the proposed move was so controversial that Stanford was booed during a meeting with Broadview's PTA, and some of Hill's fellow teachers were up in arms. Jenkins asked for — and got — a transfer to another school; she is currently principal at Olympic Hills Elementary near Jackson Park.
Hill, however, never left Broadview. Stanford suggested to Jenkins' successor that she keep Hill to soothe relations with parents and staff. When Stanford returned to a Broadview PTA meeting in the fall of 1997, he was applauded, Jenkins' successor said.
The message to staff at Broadview was clear: Confronting Hill carried a cost.
"That's your job"
In the spring of 2002, Mollie Boswell entered Hill's classroom and froze. She spotted Hill, alone, with a fifth-grade girl. The lights were off, and the girl was on Hill's lap. Boswell, her stomach turning, watched for maybe half a minute, then backed away, unseen.
What to do?
The girl's middle name was Elise. (The Seattle Times does not normally identify molestation victims, so we're using only that identifier.) She was a tiny girl with outsized grief. Her father had died two years before during a bike ride. Two of her childhood friends had died. So had an aunt who'd lived for a while with Elise's family.
Should Boswell tell Elise's mother? The mother wouldn't believe her, Boswell thought, according to her deposition. The mother adored Hill. Should Boswell tell CPS? The school didn't want that, Boswell believed. Teachers would call CPS if they suspected abuse by a child's parent — but a teacher? For that, they'd notify an administrator.
At the time, Terri Skjei (pronounced "Shay") was in her third year as Broadview's assistant principal. Should Boswell tell her? Taking Hill on like that could cost Boswell her job, she feared.
Boswell ultimately told a fellow teacher about the girl on Hill's lap — and that teacher told Skjei. The assistant principal said she'd take care of it, according to the teacher's testimony.
Later the same school year, Boswell was talking to another teacher in the hallway when the other teacher said she'd seen Hill with his hand on a girl's bottom. As the two talked, Skjei came walking along. Boswell confronted her: Have you talked to Hill? This inappropriate touching has to stop.
Skjei turned the question around. Have you talked to Hill? the assistant principal asked Boswell.
That's your job, Boswell said, then turned and walked away.
"Be a leader"
In the fall of 2002, Elise moved on to middle school. Elise's younger sister — her middle name was Celeste — entered second grade.
When school started, Hill asked Laura Koch, Celeste's new teacher, to point the girl out. Then Hill began coming into Koch's classroom and leaving candy bars with Celeste. What's going on? Koch asked the girl. Celeste said she was Hill's "little messenger." The candy bars were for taking notes to her sister.
To Koch, this "just didn't feel right." Koch went to Skjei, who was now the school's principal. Skjei, Koch said later in a deposition, told her to take it up with Hill: "She said I needed to have a 'courageous conversation' with him. I needed to be a leader and hold my colleagues accountable."
Uncomfortable as she was, Koch did it. Hill seemed surprised at Koch's objections. He agreed to stop, but Koch figured he'd just find a way to keep passing notes through Celeste without Koch knowing. And, indeed, he did.
Skjei's response to Koch's concerns made the rounds. The following year, another teacher opened Hill's door to find a girl sitting on his lap. The teacher was afraid she'd be forced to confront Hill just like Koch. So she kept it from administrators.
Some teachers didn't hesitate to talk to Skjei. One was Cathy von Haartman. She didn't trust Hill. She'd seen three girls at a time tickling his stomach. She knew how he used to wear Speedos at the fifth-grade camp. Von Haartman feared payback — that Hill would turn students and staff against her — but time and again, she went to Skjei anyway, according to her deposition.
At a spring musical, von Haartman saw Hill with a video camera, "fixated" on Celeste, the lens on her for maybe a half-hour. Von Haartman believed Hill was grooming Celeste to take her sister Elise's place.
Von Haartman told the principal: When it comes time for Celeste to enter fifth grade, you cannot let her be in Hill's class. Skjei responded: "I'm not stupid, Cathy."
You need to document that somewhere, von Haartman told Skjei, because "principals come and principals go." Without documentation, a new principal may fail to recognize the danger.
Later, von Haartman learned that Skjei didn't document a single warning about Hill. "She just didn't have what it took to deal with serious matters," von Haartman said.
Skjei, in a deposition, said she did not recall, or was fuzzy about, warnings from von Haartman, Boswell, Koch and others. "I did my job to the best of my abilities at the time," she said. "Do I have my own feelings for the girls? Of course. I knew those kids."
Skjei declined to comment for this story. She is now principal at View Ridge Elementary in Seattle.
A parent catches Hill
The 2004-05 school year started with a new principal, Jeanne Smart. Just a month into school, the staff psychologist told Smart that she'd walked in on Hill stroking two girls' hands.
Smart checked Hill's personnel file but found no other complaints. And Skjei was no help: She told Smart in a brief phone call that she didn't recall talking "much" with Hill about "boundary issues."
In October 2004, Smart wrote Hill a letter summarizing three previous "rumors" of inappropriate touching or behavior. The letter warned Hill to avoid acts "that might be misinterpreted by the students or any observer."
On April 5, 2005, a parent dropping off lunch found Hill and her 11-year-old daughter in an empty room. Hill was cupping the girl's bottom. "They were like glued there together," the mother later said. The next day, the parent went to Smart, crying. After spring break and meeting with school-district attorneys, Smart called CPS on April 20. CPS called Seattle police.
Police investigated and arrested Hill the following month.
The police investigation found that Hill molested Elise for two years, beginning a month into fifth grade, when he cradled her bottom during a class movie. He favored her with cards, notes, Beanie Baby dolls and rides home.
Elise, in a deposition, said she tried to make herself "unattractive" to Hill by skipping showers and dressing in ragged clothes. Years later, she began cutting herself on her arms and hips and was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
After Hill was found out, Elise and her mother sent him letters through the court.
Elise, now 17, wrote: "Why did you take advantage of me when I was just a little kid? Why did you abuse me one year after my father died? Why didn't you get help!?"
"More than anything, she lives to please people," the mother wrote of her daughter. "And more than anyone, she wanted to please you. But you knew that."
Hill said during a psychological evaluation that he had not been sexually abused.
"There is something broken in me," he said.
Teachers' duty unclear
In April, the school district settled a lawsuit filed on behalf of Elise and one other victim. Of the $3 million, Elise will get $2.5 million.
In an interview this week, Elise's mother said: "I hold the teachers blameless. At Broadview-Thomson, if you saw something, you went to the administration."
Evidence in the lawsuit showed that Skjei's predecessor had twice warned Hill verbally, but didn't document either instance. He's now a principal in San Francisco.
Stewart Estes, an attorney who defended the district, said incidents reported to Skjei did not rise to the level that required reports to CPS. "Hand holding or rubbing the bald spot on your head is not sexual abuse and need not be reported," Estes said.
A principal can document troubling incidents that don't equate to child abuse. But under the current teachers' contract, schools must destroy personnel files at the end of each year and start anew. Only records forwarded to the central office remain.
Anne Bremner, Elise's attorney, said: "You could basically have a pedophile in your midst and not know it. How are you going to get rid of somebody if you don't know what they did in the past?"
Last spring — in part, because of Hill — the school district expanded its training to help teachers spot grooming behavior and to clarify their duty to call CPS or police. Shannon McMinimee, the district's assistant general counsel, said teachers alarmed about a colleague should both report their concerns to their principal and call CPS or police.
Mollie Boswell, one of the Broadview teachers, said in a deposition that training received since Hill's arrest left her as confused as ever.
"I don't know what my obligation is," Boswell said, "and neither does Seattle Public Schools."
This story, published June 4, 2008 was corrected on June 21, 2008. The Seattle School District's new policy regarding an employee's duty to report suspected child abuse by fellow employees was unclear in a story in Wednesday's paper. Teachers and staff are required to report their concerns to their principal, but that report does not absolve them of their duty to also call Child Protective Services or police.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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