School district claims there wasn’t enough evidence to fire teacher sentenced for sex abuse

Southern Utah

ST. GEORGE (ABC4 News) – A judge sentenced a former elementary school teacher in St. George to serve four consecutive sentences of 15 years to life last Tuesday after dozens of women and girls alleged he sexually abused them.

Curtis William Payne, 60, pleaded no contest to four counts of aggravated sexual abuse of a child in August, according to court documents.

During sentencing, 5th District Court Judge Jeffrey C. Wilcox expressed outrage at the Washington County School District, saying administrators allowed a predator to continue to teach.

“WCSD revealed multiple incidents of documented concerns and complaints with regards the defendant’s behavior around female students,” Wilcox said, in footage acquired from St. George News. “I was dismayed when I read this.”

ABC4’s Katie Karalis requested that Payne’s personnel record be made public. On Monday, she met with Steve Dunham, the director of communications for WCSD. Dunham said the administration did everything it could with Payne’s investigation with the information it had at the time, following the laws available and reporting the incidents to proper authorities.

“We want to be fully transparent with the public,” Dunham said.

These newly released documents show the district first gave Payne a written warning in December of 1999, with the following guidelines:

  1. During a classroom video, leave the last bank of lights on. This will allow both teacher and students to see what is happening around the classroom.
  2. Avoid being in the classroom alone with a student. If you find that you are alone with a student, make sure the door is open or simply walk out into the hallway or to where other people are around.
  3. Avoid any action or activities that could be misinterpreted by anyone.
  4. Do not let a student sit on your lap. Stand up if necessary.
  5. Do not tickle a student.
  6. Do not massage the shoulder or neck of a student.
  7. Do not touch a student in any inappropriate way.
  8. Work out a contingency plan to have other/additional adult supervision for extra-curricular activities such as Sunset express.
  9. The arms-length idea is a good policy to keep in mind.
  10. Remove the barrier from the window by your inside door.

“That doesn’t mean he necessarily was doing those things, but we’re trying to be very clear and concise: These are things that would be considered a boundary violation or a problem for us,” Dunham added.

The Division of Child and Family Services and St. George Police investigated the 1999 incident, but Payne was never arrested or charged, according to the district.

In March of 2002, the administration placed Payne on 1-year probation after a complaint claimed he inappropriately touched female students at an off-campus swim party.

Payne admitted to the district he had tossed girls in the water and acknowledged his hand could have brushed them accidentally, but he denied ever intentionally touching them inappropriately. He also revealed he had continued to rub students’ shoulders in class, despite being advised against doing so in 1999.

“You admitted that students have grabbed your hand and that they ‘may have slipped (your hand) down in an inappropriate place.’ You noted that some students are ‘clingy,’ that you feel bad pushing them away, and that you have never intentionally touched them inappropriately,” superintendent Kolene F. Granger wrote in a formal probation document addressed to Payne.

At this time, DCFS and police investigated Payne a second time but never arrested or charged him.

“We had to assume that there was insufficient evidence to bring any charges,” Dunham said.

School officials warned the former teacher again to avoid touching students in October 2008 and placed him on a 2-year probation in February 2008 after another parent came forward with what they describe as a “tickling” incident with a student.

“Had police come back and filed any form of charges, at that time we could’ve taken action and terminated Mr. Payne,” added Dunham.

In February of 2018, the district learned St. George Police had arrested and charged Payne with a first-degree-felony of aggravated sexual abuse of a child and immediately placed him on administrative leave, Dunham said. Payne resigned the next day.

In certain incidents throughout Payne’s 32-year-career, WCSD said students and parents may have downplayed what happened because he was a well-liked teacher.

“I think it’s fair to say that many students and parents liked Mr. Payne and didn’t want to make a serious allegation and ruin a career of someone they really liked as a teacher,” Dunham said. “We want children to come forward and tell us that they feel uncomfortable in any way. Perhaps students minimized what took place or what happened as they talked with us.”

On multiple occasions, the superintendent and other administrators wrote to Payne that they didn’t believe his actions were “intentionally harmful,” his personnel record shows.

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