Concerns raised about child rapist Robert Burrett more than 30 years ago

Teacher Robert Selwyn Burrett, pictured at Howick Intermediate School in 1983.
SUPPLIED

Teacher Robert Selwyn Burrett, pictured at Howick Intermediate School in 1983.

Child rapist Robert Burrett was warned and placed under supervision because of complaints about his behaviour around children more than three decades ago.

Burrett was described as a hopeless teacher, but went on to hold several senior positions at schools across the upper North Island before surfacing in Christchurch as a caretaker and bus driver, where he lured young girls into an underground shed and raped and abused them.

Burrett was able to move from one school to another without any alarm bells being sounded over his past.

Stuff can reveal that concerns were raised about Burrett as far back as the early 1980s, when he taught at Auckland's Howick Intermediate. Class photos show a sandy-haired man of about 30 with a moustache.

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Burrett was apparently well-respected, some parents even requesting their children be put in his class. But kids nicknamed him "Bad Breath Burrett".

Do you have more information about Burrett and his offending? Contact blair.ensor@fairfaxmedia.co.nz
Teacher Robert Selwyn Burrett with his class at Howick Intermediate in 1983. The pupils are blurred with the exception ...

Teacher Robert Selwyn Burrett with his class at Howick Intermediate in 1983. The pupils are blurred with the exception of Trina McLachlan, pictured in the front row.

Former Howick Intermediate principal Brian Pittams said he dealt with complaints about Burrett's behaviour and his "proximity" to children after he took charge in 1983.

"Kids would sometimes say 'Mr Burrett sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable'," Pittams said.

BURRETT TOOK PUPILS TO HIS HOME

Former student Trina McLachlan was one who had a bad feeling about Burrett - she remembers how the teacher took her and a friend on a ride in his car and touched one of their legs.

Pittams said the complaints about Burrett did not justify dismissal, but he was warned and placed under supervision.

"We dealt with that at the time and it didn't happen again — there were no more reports. He made big steps to improve his performance and attitudes and behaviours."

Pittams said he was assured by a senior education inspector that the matter had been dealt with correctly.

Ministry of Education head of sector enablement and support, Katrina Casey, said staff could find no record regarding concerns about Burrett when he was at Howick Intermediate.

Trina McLachlan says she was made to feel uncomfortable by Robert Burrett when he taught her at Auckland's Howick ...
CHRIS MCKEEN

Trina McLachlan says she was made to feel uncomfortable by Robert Burrett when he taught her at Auckland's Howick Intermediate in 1983.

"If anyone has any information not held by the ministry regarding Burrett they should forward it directly to us or the police."

She warned that it was mandatory for schools to report offences to the Education Council. Failure to do so could result in a fine of up to $25,000.

McLachlan said she went to Howick Intermediate in 1982 and 1983.

Burrett would take her and her friend to his house during school hours to "pick something up".

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"I don't remember why but we got the opportunity to wag school with him and it was all light and jovial. There was one other girl and for some reason there was no room in the back seat . . . and two of us had to squeeze into the front seat and something happened with a gear stick and a leg, a touching.

"He talked about his family a lot, at that time his wife . . . it made you feel OK about being there and that he had children. I remember being drawn into the house and not going in, my gut said don't go in, don't go in, don't go in.

"There was another incident in the car on the way back from his house, he laughed it off and was being silly and I remember him saying 'don't worry you can fall on me, or lean on me' or something."

After that McLachlan did her best to avoid Burrett during class.

"I stopped asking questions in class because he would lean too close, he was inappropriate. He had very revolting bad breath and hence his name, Bad Breath Burrett."

While nothing more serious happened, she hoped speaking out would help answer why Burrett had been allowed to work in the education sector for so long.

"My concern is this guy . . . has got away for 30-something years doing this and gone up the ladder, got a great career, then gone down the ladder and is bus driving special needs children and he's somehow slipped through the ministry's net."

Another former Howick pupil, Kerry Stevenson, said Burrett was one of her teachers in 1984. She was not aware of any inappropriate behaviour but described Burrett as "scruffy" and "quirky".

"You don't always remember all your teachers but I did remember him because he was a bit different. As a student we all liked him.

"For us he was a good teacher. He was a bit quirky, a little different. He used to talk about his family and about being in Vietnam, with looking at his age I don't think was true."

'A NASTY PIECE OF WORK'

Pittams said that Burrett was a highly respected staff member at Howick who was heavily involved with athletics and the community, but he was not a good teacher.

"He wasn't that competent in the classroom. We had to put strategies in place to support him."

Pittams said he was shocked to learn of Burrett's offending in Christchurch.

"He's a nasty piece of work.

"With hindsight you always look back and say what could we have done to protect those kids. It's not a comfortable feeling.

"I wish we'd steered him out of teaching".

After leaving Howick Intermediate, Burrett went on to several other schools, including Horeke School in Northland, Lake Rotoma School in Bay of Plenty and Pukenui School in Te Kuiti.

He was forced out of both Lake Rotoma and Pukenui amid complaints of poor teaching, inappropriate behaviour and alcohol abuse.

PARENTS PETITION SCHOOL TO GET RID OF BURRETT

John Sandison, whose children were taught by Burrett at Lake Rotoma, said parents were so concerned about his behaviour when he was principal there in the early 90s they began a petition to get rid of him. It was signed by about 60 people.

Sandison said Burrett had been taking girls out of school on trips to Rotorua, supposedly to get them netball uniforms.

"There was a shopping centre with a pub on the way back and he would call in there and have a beer and put a bit of money on the TAB - he left [the girls] sitting in the van outside."

Sandison said that although he did not believe Burrett had molested any children, in hindsight it seemed he may have been grooming them.

"You look back and you think, maybe he was testing the waters just to see what he thought he could get away with. You think, oh Jesus, how bloody close were our kids [to being victims]."

Sandison said Burrett was not accounting for the school's money and was a poor teacher.

"The Olympic or Commonwealth Games were on and he just carried his big TV over from the house and put it in the classroom and the kids just watched that all day - they didn't do any bloody schoolwork."

Steve Parry, former chairman of the board of trustees of Pukenui School, where Burrett became deputy principal in the late 90s, said the school had tried for some time to get rid of him but ran into stiff opposition from the teachers' union NZEI.

"They were quite evasive and defensive of the guy - it frustrated us to a high level," Parry said.

Eventually in 2001 the board reached a confidential settlement with Burrett. Stuff understands he walked away with about $8000.

"There were no issues around his behaviour with children," Parry said. "He was a loner, an oddball, dishevelled, drunk, disorganised - all those things - but we had no knowledge of inappropriate behaviour with children. Had I had that, I would have had the police involved right from the get-go."

BURRETT 'REEKED OF ALCOHOL'

A Te Kuiti woman whose son and daughter were both taught by Burrett said he was a bad teacher.

"My daughter said he wasn't creepy but he always reeked of alcohol. When he taught my son the kids just ran riot in his class, my son didn't learn anything."

Burrett moved to Christchurch in 2006. He was employed as a casual relief teacher at a school, which cannot be named for legal reasons, in 2012 and became its caretaker a year later.

He also drove a taxi-bus for disabled children and delivered them to different schools, despite having two drink-driving convictions.

Last month Burrett, 64, admitted 21 charges, including the rape, sodomy, forced oral sex and indecent assault of a dozen girls, aged five to 12. Some of them were disabled and one was wheelchair bound.

Burrett installed a lock and curtains in a caretaker shed at the Christchurch school to hide his offending, which took place over a two-year period.

He also abused several girls in his taxi-bus, one of whom blew the whistle on his predatory behaviour in March last year.

 - Stuff

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