Dark past of playground predator

By Kirsty Johnston, Olivia Carville

Child rapist Robert Selwyn Burrett faces sentencing next month. A Weekend Herald investigation has uncovered his chequered history working in primary schools across the country over the past four decades. Olivia Carville and Kirsty Johnston report.
Since the early 1980s, Burrett, now 64, has bounced around New Zealand's education system.
Since the early 1980s, Burrett, now 64, has bounced around New Zealand's education system.

WATCH: Those who knew child rapist Robert Selwyn Burrett speak out:

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A caretaker convicted of raping children in an underground shed was a former principal forced out of two previous schools for alcohol abuse, incompetence and inappropriate behaviour with students.

Neither dismissal was ever officially recorded against his name - with one negotiated departure the result of a secret payout - and so at least three primary schools employed Robert Selwyn Burrett with no knowledge of his chequered past.

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Since the early 1980s, Burrett, now 64, has bounced around New Zealand's education system, working his way up to principal, then slipping to deputy, relief teacher, then tutor.

His 40-year career ended last May when he was arrested and charged while working as a special needs bus driver and school caretaker in Christchurch.

Burrett plead guilty to 21 child sex abuse charges last month, including the rape, forced oral sex and sodomy of 12 young girls in his underground shed, where he filmed the abuse after installing locks and curtains to hide two years of offending.

His victims were as young as 5; some were intellectually disabled and one was wheelchair-bound.

A former Lake Rotoma School student says Robert Burrett's sexually deviant behaviour began back in the early 90s.
A former Lake Rotoma School student says Robert Burrett's sexually deviant behaviour began back in the early 90s.

Burrett, a father and grandfather, is due to be sentenced next month, but has already been labelled one of New Zealand's worst child sex offenders.

Parents, board members and former students from the two schools Burrett was removed from - Lake Rotoma School and Pukenui School - were brought to tears when they learned of his crimes, citing red flags as early as 1990.

They believe the abuse in Christchurch could have been prevented if his employment history was properly recorded. The only black marks on Burrett's record were two drink-driving convictions.

"He should have been struck right off the [teacher's] register. He should never have been with our vulnerable children; never even been allowed to go anywhere near them," said mother Helen Shaw, who removed her children from Burrett's care at Lake Rotoma School in 1991.

"The system is broken."

Helen Shaw pulled her children out of Lake Rotoma School in 1991 because of Robert Burrett's "inappropriate behaviour". Photo / Mike Scott
Helen Shaw pulled her children out of Lake Rotoma School in 1991 because of Robert Burrett's "inappropriate behaviour". Photo / Mike Scott

A Herald investigation tracing Burrett's history over the past 30 years has found:

• He worked as principal of Lake Rotoma School in the early 1990s, where 60 community members signed a petition seeking his resignation after he was caught teaching drunk, and took children out of school without parent permission.

• Burrett's sexually deviant behaviour dates back to his time at Rotoma, with one former student alleging he masturbated in classrooms and watched girls getting changed into swimming togs with an erection.

• Lake Rotoma School board members sought advice and guidance from education officials to sack Burrett and say a liaison officer was called in to help negotiate his resignation in 1992.

• Burrett was then employed as the deputy principal of Pukenui School in Te Kuiti, and used the principal of a catholic school in Rotorua as his reference. Neither of the two catholic primary schools in Rotorua have any record of Burrett working there.

• Pukenui School tried to fire Burrett for incompetency - alleging he was drunk, unkempt and inept - but a teacher's union became involved and the case ended in a mediation hearing and confidential Board of Trustees payout in 2001.

When Burrett was convicted last month, the ministry said it checked all records for any historical complaints received during Burrett's employment, but none were found.

Following Herald inquiries about Burrett's past, the ministry re-examined its records and found a 1993 report about his dismissal from Rotoma, outlining complaints of poor teaching and "friction". This did not include any allegations of sexual misconduct.

Three other complaints relating to "inappropriate comments and behaviour" and allegations of alcohol abuse while Burrett was working as a bus driver were also discovered. The ministry gave no explanation as to why these prior complaints were never listed against Burrett's teacher's registration.

The Herald called the board chair of the Christchurch school where Burrett committed his crimes - which cannot be named due to suppression orders - and informed him of his employment history. He was quiet for a long time, before saying he could only hope information-sharing practices would change between schools.

"I'm just glad the Vulnerable Children's Act has come in. It makes it easier to put this kind of thing on the record," he said. He did not want to comment further while the case was before the courts.

The law, which came into effect in 2014, means the identity of those working with children is now checked more stringently, over and above a regular vetting by the police.

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The first evidence of Burrett's concerning behaviour told to the Herald was in Rotoma, where he is remembered as the "creepy" principal who had a drinking problem and never should have been hired in the first place.

Former teachers said he was vacant, disorganised and often drunk in the classroom. This caused a mass exodus at the school, with many parents choosing to send their children out of town or to homeschool them instead.

Lake Rotoma School, where Robert Burrett was removed as principal in 1992. Photo / Mike Scott
Lake Rotoma School, where Robert Burrett was removed as principal in 1992. Photo / Mike Scott

At least 60 members of the community signed a petition to remove Burrett after he twice took students out of school without parent permission - once where he drove three 10-year-old girls to Rotorua, 40km away, so they could try on netball uniforms.

Veteran fire fighter and then-board member John Sandison told how Burrett made the girls wait in his van, while he stopped at a pub to have a beer and put a bet on a racehorse.

"I knew something wasn't right ... he was pushing the boundaries with these kids. It makes me think that maybe he was testing the waters with what he could get away with," Mr Sandison said. "He presented as a family man. It just makes me sick."

One of his former students, who asked to be known as Sarah, recalled several disturbing events. She said Burrett patted girls on the bottom, masturbated in class while reading erotic fiction, stood in the girls' changing room with an erection and encouraged children to play softball with their shirts off.

Lake Rotoma School parents raised concerns with the board over Robert Burrett taking three 10-year-old girls out of class and driving them 40km to Rotorua to try on netball uniforms.
Lake Rotoma School parents raised concerns with the board over Robert Burrett taking three 10-year-old girls out of class and driving them 40km to Rotorua to try on netball uniforms.

"I knew this day would come. As an adult now, looking back on some of his behaviour it was clearly all leading towards this," she said.

Board members at the time never heard complaints of a sexual nature, however. They just wanted him gone because he "was so bad as a principal", former board trustee Malcolm McHale said.

They said a rural liaison officer was sent into the school to mediate a conference between the teaching staff and Burrett. Shortly afterwards, he resigned.

Ten years later, Burrett was again forced from a school, this time as the deputy principal at Pukenui School in the King Country.

The Herald understands the board had tried to get rid of Burrett for some time, alleging incompetence, and eventually negotiated a confidential settlement worth around $8000 to ensure he would leave.

Robert Burrett was removed as the deputy principal of Pukenui School in 2001 after board members alleged he was drunk, unkempt and inept. He received a secret payout. Photo / Mike Scott
Robert Burrett was removed as the deputy principal of Pukenui School in 2001 after board members alleged he was drunk, unkempt and inept. He received a secret payout. Photo / Mike Scott

Chairman at the time, Steve Parry, was shocked to hear of Burrett's unsavoury past at his previous job.

"It's disappointing that things happened [at Rotoma] but ... sometimes at a school you're just looking after your school."

Mr Parry said he couldn't discuss the settlement, but it had nothing to do with sexual misconduct.

Former principal Keith McKenzie said Burrett was hired on the strength of a glowing reference from a catholic school in Rotorua. However, the only two catholic schools in the city have no record of Burrett ever working there.

Despite no official complaints of a sexual nature against Burrett at Pukenui, former student Willie Wanakore recalled some questionable behaviour by the deputy principal.

The 27-year-old said Burrett used to encourage the boys to play rugby in their underwear, telling them it would help keep their clothes clean.

"We always used to wonder why he would stand there and watch us play," Mr Wanakore said.

Burrett used to lean inappropriately close over students to help them with school work and they could smell whiskey on his breath, he said.

Willie Wanakore, 27, was a former student of Mr Burrett at Pukenui School in 1999. Photo / Mike Scott
Willie Wanakore, 27, was a former student of Mr Burrett at Pukenui School in 1999. Photo / Mike Scott

"It just turns my stomach and makes me sick to realise one of our former teachers, someone we had trust in ... would do that sort of stuff to students," Mr Wanakore said.

"I reckon all that stuff could have been prevented earlier. The red flags have been there and I just don't know why no one followed it up."

He was one of dozens of people spoken to by the Weekend Herald who believed the system failed to ensure Burrett's past followed him to future schools.

"What school would employ him if they had that information in front of them?" said former Rotoma school secretary Pat Lunt. "He would have found it difficult to secure a position in a school if they were aware of that."

The Ministry of Education said the introduction of mandatory reporting was a very important step for the protection of children. Now when there are concerns about a teacher or principal, they have to be reported.

Police refused to comment while the case was before the courts. Several people contacted by the Herald for this story had been recently contact by police, however that did not include either of the former school board chairs who were responsible for removing Burrett.

A spokesman for the Education Council has records associated with two drink driving offences attached to Burrett's file. He said any agreement an employer or board of trustee makes with a teacher does not, in any way, absolve their legal and professional responsibility to report these matters to the Council.

"We must stress the important obligation school boards of trustees and principals currently have to take any concerns or complaints about a teacher's conduct extremely seriously and report those concerns to the Education Council if they have reason to believe a teacher has acted in a way that is physically or emotionally harmful to a student.

"Parents today should take comfort in the fact the processes to ensure teachers are safe and competent to teach are more robust than they have ever been."

Teachers are police vetted every three years and schools are required by law to report to the Council any serious concerns or complaints about a teacher.

The Education Council also works with the police and other agencies to share information, where appropriate, about a teacher where there are serious concerns.

Timeline

1951: Robert Selwyn Burrett was born, adopted out and raised in Auckland.
1982: Public records show he was living with his wife and children and working as a school teacher in Pakuranga, Auckland.
1988 to 1990: Principal of Horeke School in Horeke.
1991: The Burrett family shifted to Rotoma and he took up the role of principal of Lake Rotoma School, enrolling his children in the school.
1992: Forced out of Lake Rotoma School when the community launched a petition calling for his resignation.
1994: The Burrett family shifted to Te Kuiti and he started working as deputy principal of Pukenui School in King Country.
2001: Convicted of drunk driving in Te Kuiti.
2001: Removed from Pukenui School and received a confidential settlement from the board.
2004 to 2005: He was working as a tutor in Te Kuiti.
2006: Moved down to Christchurch with his wife and worked as a tutor.
2007: Convicted of drunk driving in Christchurch.
2008 to 2013: Working as a school teacher in various Christchurch schools.
2014 to 2015: He was working as a school caretaker and special needs bus driver, contracted to the Ministry of Education, in Christchurch.
May 2015: Charged with the sexual abuse of 12 young girls.

The Reporting Rules

It is now mandatory to report teacher misconduct, including dismissals and where teachers resign "under a cloud". The Teachers' Council, now known as the Education Council, has processes for dealing both with competency and conduct issues.

Every report or complaint about conduct is investigated, and either dealt with by agreement or referred to a disciplinary tribunal. Since 2014, all matters of serious misconduct must be referred to the disciplinary tribunal. Impairment issues - such as alcohol or drug issues - are also dealt with through the process. Teachers can be struck off after a Tribunal decision.

Before 2004, mandatory reporting was enforced less stringently, and membership of registered teachers to the former Teachers Registration Board was optional.

From this July year, the Vulnerable Children's Act will see further workforce restrictions. Anyone convicted of a specified offence cannot be employed or engaged as a core children's worker, unless they have an exemption.

There will be new children's workers' safety checks which require identity verification, work history and a risk assessment along with the existing requirement for a police vet.

- NZ Herald

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