Parental Nightmare

A fifth-grade teacher in Seattle pleads guilty to child molestation, and a former pupil sues the school district.

In a case that has smoldered quietly in the background of the Seattle School District's financial and academic troubles this year, a 55-year-old elementary-school teacher has pleaded guilty to two counts of child molestation that involved at least three grade-school students over a four-year period. Four other girls also reported questionable contact with the teacher. Additionally, on Wednesday, Nov. 16, the family of a student who was allegedly digitally raped by the teacher filed a lawsuit in King County Superior Court against the district for "deliberate indifference to rape and repeated sexual abuse" of the girl, who was 11 at the time. All the girls are or were students at Broadview-Thomson Elementary in north Seattle.

Seattle attorney Anne Bremner filed the lawsuit, which says the student is now a ninth-grader at a high school. Bremner claims the district failed to heed repeated warnings about the conduct of the teacher, Laurence E. "Shayne" Hill. He was an instructor for more than 32 years—the last 20 at Broadview-Thomson—until he was put on paid leave in May, after police began an investigation. Hill told police at the time that he planned to retire, though he still has his teaching certificate, Bremner says. When he was later arrested in Edmonds, according to court papers, police found a living will and what appeared to be a note for a planned suicide. It said "the harm I have caused goes beyond anything I thought I could bear." Hill was also charged with two counts of communicating with a minor for immoral purposes and pleaded guilty to the four felony counts on Nov. 7. He faces up to life in prison, but the King County Prosecutor's Office says it will recommend that Hill, who has no criminal record, serve nine years and become a registered sex offender.

Bremner says at least three school principals over the years were aware of Hill's unwarranted touching of students but took no satisfactory action. Hill kept a rubber breast and penis on a stick in his classroom desk drawer, the lawsuit says, and his reputation for touching students inappropriately was known to other teachers and students. Bremner said the plaintiff's family engaged the district in settlement talks, but they were not productive.

School district spokesperson Peter Daniels said the district has not seen the lawsuit and could not comment. "We do have training sessions to try and help teachers and parents to recognize grooming signs," Daniels says. "In general, sexual predators groom their victims and also groom those that are around them. The training is to help people try to recognize those signs." He says the district is concerned and saddened by the revelations about Hill. "Any kids who are hurt during our care, we are regretful, it's a horrible thing, and completely opposite of what we try to do. We try to help kids learn and grow. We have no way to guarantee that all staff will be good people, though the majority of them are."

A police detective's report says the district quickly launched an internal investigation after the mother of one of the girls complained to the school's principal. The incidents came to light last April, officials say, when this girl's mother, bringing her lunch, walked into the classroom and saw that Hill had his arm around the girl's waist and had a hand on her buttocks.

Police learned of other touching and kissing incidents witnessed by other teachers as far back as 2001. The school's principal, according to police, had been aware of a staff member's complaint from 2004 that Hill was seen holding hands with two fifth-grade students. The principal says she warned Hill in writing about inappropriately crossing the boundaries between teachers and students. Surprisingly, Hill told her he had been warned by other principals in the past. Police altogether questioned seven current and former students of Hill's about questionable touching incidents; at least three girls reported inappropriate or sexual contact.

According to court documents, Hill first befriended the plaintiff when she was eight, shortly after her father died. He told police the relationship subsequently became "intimate." The girl told a detective that Hill had repeatedly "touched her in the crotch" since she was 10 years old. During school movies, she'd sometimes sit on his lap, and he inserted his finger inside her, according to court papers. Bremner says Hill gave the girl gifts and sent her notes and letters to "groom" her for the sexual contact.

During an interview earlier this year with a detective, Hill admitted to inappropriately touching several of the girls, including the lawsuit's plaintiff, and said he would have wanted to have a romantic relationship with the girl if she had been older. He later called the detective on the phone and added more details. In her report, the detective said Hill "admits to an impulse control problem that led to the inappropriate touching. He admitted there is a sexual connotation to the touching." Hill's sentencing date is Dec. 2, and he is being held in the King County Jail.

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