Last summer a teacher from my old school messaged me on Facebook.
This was bizarre as my profile is on private and my profile name is a pseudonym.
The message read: “Massive long shot, but interested in a drink with the weirdest teacher you knew? Don’t want to drink alone and I suspect you won’t judge too much. And yes, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel to contact you.”
It wasn’t the first time he’d contacted me but I couldn’t ignore this message. Not this time. Not when I knew what he’d done.
But to explain this, I have to go back to 2012, when I was a year 12 student at a secondary school in Gippsland.
The day after I finished my VCE English exam, I received a message from my English teacher, Gregory Gorton. He wanted to know how I felt about finishing school and whether I was confident about my results.
It seemed innocent enough as it was common for teachers to hand out their phone numbers to senior students to help us prepare for exams. Greg Gorton was a young teacher and often enjoyed light-hearted banter with students.
“I knew this was strange. There were policies against teachers interacting with students on social media.
So when he shifted the conversation to other subjects it seemed as though he was attempting to finish our exchange on a funny note.
A day or so later, I received a Facebook notification on one of my photos. This time he complimented my appearance. I knew this was strange. There were policies against teachers interacting with students on social media. But I ignored it.
Finally, one night when I was celebrating the end of school with close friends, I checked my phone to see multiple missed calls, texts and voicemail messages.
Alarm bells began to sound in my head as I read these messages. My fun-loving English teacher was propositioning me to come to the pub in the middle of the night, or to meet him at Gippsland’s Sale clocktower – “If you dare”.
I knew this was wrong. So I told a few friends.
One other student in my English class had also received strange messages from the same teacher.
We laughed it off, deleted his number and, as we left Sale to head to university, thought this would be the end of the story.
One year later, at the Sale County Court, 30-year-old Gregory Thomas Gorton – our English teacher – was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old girl.
Gorton’s victim was a student at my old school.
I realised that had I just told the school or the police that this man had messaged me a whole year before this offence, Gorton would not have had the opportunity to groom his victim.
A mutual friend told me about what happened.
Gorton had frequently messaged Angela*, complimenting her appearance. He eventually asked her to come for a drink at a friend’s house in Moe.
He arranged for Angela and himself to travel on the train from Sale to Moe one weekend in October 2013.
At his trial, the Sale County Court was told that at the friend’s home, Gorton plied Angela with drink before they had sex.
Gorton pleaded guilty to two counts of sexual penetration of a minor under 16 years of age and in May 2014, he was sentenced to 2½ years in prison, with a non-parole period of 12 months.
In sentencing, Judge Mark Dean said Gorton had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder at the age of 19, and was satisfied his judgement had been impaired by his mental illness at the time.
The judge said he was “satisfied” Gorton was “deeply remorseful” for his actions, and that “prospects for rehabilitation may properly be described as very good”.
Gorton’s sentencing came as a shock to the school. The principal* said that he would have “locked [Gorton] up, and thrown the key away”.
“I would hate to see him down the street,” he said. “He caused so much angst for that family, the victim and this whole community.”
The principal said that he doesn’t believe that bi-polar disorder should be a factor of consideration in reducing jail time when it comes to grooming a student.
“We have several staff with bi-polar, and you wouldn’t know they have it,” the principal said.
Angela is still dealing with the psychological ramifications of the assault and is too traumatised to recollect what happened to her four years ago. Some of Angela’s peers said that the school overlooked many warning signs that pointed to Gorton’s predatory behaviour.
Teachers claim that they complained to the school in 2012, when Gorton was teaching Year 12 English, and was seen loitering around in nightclubs his students were attending.
The school denies these accounts, and insists that the first the school knew about any predatory behaviour was when police informed the school of Gorton’s arrest in November 2013.
However, the school admitted that Gorton was particularly difficult to work with, as he refused to follow the set curriculum and had negative relationships with his colleagues.
The deputy principal broke down in tears when asked how she felt when she was told of Gorton’s actions.
“It was devastating,” she said. “And obviously still is.”
“We didn’t protect her as we would have liked to.” The deputy principal has been working at the secondary school or more than 25 years.
The school says it has become more vigilant about vetting the teachers it hires, going beyond the new regulations that have come from the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
All adults who are in contact with students, even cleaners, are now required to be trained in child safety and adhere to a strict code of conduct.
The deputy principal said that this has paid off, and empowered students as they have begun to report conduct they find inappropriate.
However, the school leadership refused to comment when asked if there had been any other cases of teachers leaving due to inappropriate relationships with students.
This year, when I heard from my “weirdest teacher”, I did not ignore this message.
That afternoon I went to the Sale police station, armed with the knowledge of what he had done in the past, and that he spent time in jail for this criminal act.
*Angela is not the real name of the victim. We have not named the school or the principal or deputy-principal to protect her identity.
► This story was first published in The Age. Jane McNaughton is a journalism masters student at the University of Melbourne Centre for Advancing Journalism.