Rachel Smalley is a radio host for Newstalk ZB. Listen to her between 5am and 6am every weekday morning.

Rachel Smalley: Awful failures to protect children from predator Robert Burrett


How safe is your child at school?

This morning, they'll go off to school - and once they walk through the school gates, you are no longer their last line of defence. Someone else is.

I think that's part of the parental anguish you experience on your child's first day of school. They're just five years old, they're so little, and you watch them walk off into the big wide world, and they look so vulnerable. You stand at the school gates, in floods of tears, stuffing your pockets with tissues, hoping beyond all hope that their teacher will care for them as you have for the first delicate five years of their life.

Now think about this. Your little five year old starts school. They're a new entrant, their world suddenly opens up before them. But one day, soon after they start school, they're taken to a shed.

READ MORE: Calls for inquiry after child rapist Robert Burrett revelations

It's the caretaker's shed. He draws the curtains. There's a recording system inside allowing him to film what goes on in there. And every day at morning tea and at lunch time, he'll take a child - some are five years old, but they're anywhere between five and twelve - and he'll rape and sodomise those little girls, and force oral sex on them. And he'll film it.

And then, when the bell goes, he'll send that little girl back to class.

And he'll do that for years.

And the school that you entrusted to care for your child will see nothing. They didn't notice. They didn't see anything strange. Nothing triggered an alarm bell. Nothing at all. A new entrant goes missing - sometimes at morning tea, sometimes at lunch time, and no-one notices she's gone and the caretaker's pulled the curtains in his shed.

This same man, this same monster - Robert Burrett - will drive disabled children on a school bus - young girls who have difficulties communicating and they're mentality impaired, and he'll sexually assault them on the bus. He'll pull over on the side of the road as he drives them between their home and their school, so he can sexually abuse them for his own sexual gratification.

He's been working in our school system for decades. He was sacked as a principal. He was useless. Incompetent. He was let go as a deputy principal. Again, he was useless.

He went on to teach but there were complaints about him again and again and he continued to slide down the scale. He was given repreive after repreive. He became a school bus driver. Then he became a school caretaker. Why? Why did he keep aligning himself with schools? Why, when you once held the lofty position of school principal, would you accept a job as a school bus-driver or caretaker?

READ MORE: Larry Williams: Paedophile should not have been able to work at schools

The answer is simple. It's because our education system gave him what he wanted - it gave him access to children to abuse. Burrett's behaviour is the classic behaviour of a paedophile - he positioned himself in a way where he could access children with limited oversight. That enabled his abuse.

Yesterday, he was sentenced to 19 and a half years jail. The education ministry said, "Look, there were no signs. We don't think we could have picked up on this any earlier than what we did."

Well, forgive my language, but I call bulls*** on that.

The Ministry said - quite unbelievably - that no complaint was ever made about sexual impropriety until the day the Police took action. Well, here's a tip for the Ministry. Five-year-olds don't tend to make claims of sexual impropriety. Nor do 12-year-olds.

What I can tell you is this: - the abuse this man inflicted on these children horrific, horrific abuse, which would have triggered seismic changes in the girls' behaviour at school. They would have been withdrawn, they would have been fearful, they would have been in physical pain, for God's sake. And no-one - not one person - picked up on that? No-one picked up on the unexplained absence of a five year old at morning tea and at lunch time? No-one at all?

Make no mistake - Robert Burrett is the monster here - but if the Ministry says the education system had no part to play in failing these children, then who is acting as the last line of defence for our children when they step through the school gates this morning?

The minister - Hekia Parata said this - "I feel very sad for these children and their families, but we have strengthened the system along the chain." Whatever that means.

And what's more there won't be a full inquiry into how this man came to work with our children despite being forced from two schools. Despite complaints about his incompetence. Despite concerns about his teaching and behaviour. No inquiry.

No inquiry, it seems, but a lot of a***-covering. And our children, potentially, once again, are the losers in this country.

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Rachel Smalley is a radio host for Newstalk ZB. Listen to her between 5am and 6am every weekday morning.

Rachel’s career in journalism is extensive. She has reported from Europe, Africa, Asia and America, covering elections in Britain, the United States, France and New Zealand. She joined Newstalk ZB as host of KPMG Early Edition in 2013 and also works on TVNZ’s Sunday and Q&A current affairs programmes.

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