Crime and Justice

The vice principal: How a small Vermont town overlooked the abuse of two teens

selfie of two girls in high school
Rose Earl, left, and Sam McPhetres take a photo together while setting up for gymnastics practice at Randolph Union High School in November 2008. Earl was in 8th grade and McPhetres was a senior. Photo courtesy Sam McPhetres

Rose Earl remembers steeling herself for the conversation. 

It was 2009, in the days that smudge late winter into early spring. At Randolph Union Middle/High School, where Earl was in 8th grade, a rumor was humming among teachers and students alike: Her gymnastics teammate, senior Sam McPhetres, had been spending a suspicious amount of time with vice principal David Barnett.

In the roughly 12 years since, the details of when and where Earl confronted McPhetres have blurred. But Earl hasn’t forgotten the tingle of nerves she felt at the time.

“A lot of people are talking,” McPhetres recalled the 8th grader saying. “Is anything going on between you?”

The older teen brushed off the idea that the vice principal had engaged in inappropriate behavior with her. “You know how rumors are,” she said dismissively.

It was a brief exchange. Earl dropped the subject, and they both let the conversation slip from their memories. But it would prove both uncanny and prescient. It marked the only time anyone asked McPhetres about the abuse she allegedly endured from the widely respected school administrator from her teens into her early 20s.

For Earl, it was an eerie foreshadowing. Within two years, she too was allegedly groomed and victimized by Barnett — but without anyone to question her about it. 

Almost exactly nine years later, Earl gathered her nerve and confronted McPhetres again, this time via Facebook. Only then did McPhetres acknowledge what she had denied a decade earlier.

The pair came forward in tandem in late 2017 and reported their experiences to law enforcement. Barnett, who was still co-principal at Randolph, was arrested weeks later.

Even then, authorities brought only a single charge against Barnett — involving an alleged sex act with a minor — in response to Earl’s report. 

According to McPhetres, investigators told her she would have no opportunity to seek justice through the courts because the statute of limitations for the conduct she alleged — that Barnett had solicited and received sexually explicit photos of her when she was 17 — had expired. A law enforcement official who declined to be named confirmed that authorities investigated McPhetres’ allegations but would not say why charges weren’t brought. 

McPhetres and Earl allegedly endured years of coercion and abuse — far beyond what has been reported in the press — and it remains unknown whether Barnett exploited other students who have yet to come forward. Neither survivor has ever before been named publicly.

Then and now, the principal’s alleged exploitation of students has been reserved for convenience store scuttlebutt and bleacher gossip.

More than a dozen current and former teachers declined to speak with VTDigger about the case and its implications. The subject was too raw, some said. They preferred not to weigh in when they weren’t familiar with its details. “I’ve tried very hard to move past all of the ill feelings,” a former teacher wrote to VTDigger. 

During his decade-long tenure at Randolph, Barnett’s alleged abuse became a crime hidden in plain sight, obscured by a culture of small-town trust and a common faith in the Randolph community and local authorities. Interviews with more than 30 students, teachers and community members revealed a collective failure to recognize the abuse and step in to prevent it. 

David Barnett
David Barnett

In March, Barnett, now 53, cut a deal with prosecutors, pleading no contest to a single misdemeanor charge of sexual exploitation of a minor. If accepted by a judge, the deal would bar him from working in schools and require him to register as a sex offender, spend 30 days in prison and pay Earl $15,000 to cover the costs of her mental health treatment. The formal sentencing is expected to take place later this summer. 

Over the course of three months, both Barnett and his attorney, Brooks McArthur, repeatedly declined to comment on the substance of the women’s allegations. “The case isn’t over,” McArthur said Thursday. “We have to get through the sentencing, and I think at that point we’ll be in a better position to respond publicly.”

Though the legal proceeding is nearing resolution, the narrative has remained incomplete, relayed piecemeal through court documents and local hearsay. It has lacked its most essential element: the stories of the young women who endured and survived the abuse.

Earl, who’s now 25, contacted VTDigger via Facebook in January, seeking a way to share her account. McPhetres, 29, agreed to an interview request soon after, in hopes it would serve as the validation she never received in court. 

Their accounts are based on a dozen interviews over the course of five months as well as a review of court documents and Facebook messages they individually exchanged with Barnett.

“This might be the only acknowledgment that I’m ever going to get, really,” McPhetres said. She longed for “one thing in my life that I can be unapologetically honest about, like, ‘Hey, this happened. It was messed up.’”


Joining ‘the club’

I was 14, a sophomore at Randolph, when Barnett took a job as assistant principal in 2007.

He had spent the previous decade working as an 8th grade English teacher in his native Maryland, followed by two years consulting for the Vermont Agency of Education. He turned down a job in Italy to take the Randolph gig, overseeing a school with 450 students from three towns. 

I was the kind of student who turned in my homework on time and stayed out of the social fray. But even I noticed that Barnett made an impression among students. He was 39, with gelled-back graying hair and a vaguely jock-dad aura. Sometimes after school he would lift weights in the gym wearing a skintight Under Armour tank top. 

McPhetres said she first met the new administrator that September when Barnett helped a young teacher manage her rowdy college prep physics class. He appeared to notice when McPhetres finished a practice problem quickly and asked her to help her classmate with the equation. 

She felt the pleasure of recognition. “He picked me out almost immediately in that classroom,” she said. 

For a teenager accustomed to self-reliance and isolation, the moment stuck out. McPhetres had suffered abuse as a child, she said. In 2004, when she was in 7th grade, her brother Nick died by suicide. Around the same time, her cousin was murdered in Barre. 

According to McPhetres, her parents were dazed by grief.

“I literally felt like I was invisible,” she said. She protected her parents from worry by sticking to herself.

McPhetres remembered school as a refuge, and Barnett took her under his wing, she said. He established an “open-door policy” for McPhetres. As she waited for 6 p.m. gymnastics practices, she and a few teammates, including Earl, would go to his office to hang out, recalled Dani Gagnon, a ninth-grader at the time. 

He’d put his feet up on the desk, and the other girls would call him “DB,” Gagnon said. 

Gagnon felt like she had walked into the meeting of a club she didn’t belong to. But there was nowhere for students to go in the three-hour period between school and practice. The school library closed and the halls were vacant. It was midwinter and dark. No one walked the half-mile into town. 

“It was a lot of unsupervised time,” Gagnon said. She never noticed anything inappropriate during their office hang-outs, but by the following year, she withdrew. It felt too chummy, she thought at the time. “I was like, I’m not sure I want to be part of this club,” she said. 

McPhetres had close relationships with several of her teachers, but Barnett went further. He made a Facebook profile, and the two would message one another late into the night. He burned CDs for her, with a mix of oldies and pop, she said. On one, he scrawled the name of the first track on the cover: “You are the one.” 

“He just had a way of making me feel special,” she said.

Sam McPhetres in Colchester earlier this month. She said she first met David Barnett when he helped a young teacher manage her rowdy college prep physics class at Randolph Union High School, where McPhetres was a student. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

By midwinter of that year, they would make plans to spend time alone in his office, she said. If they sat in a corner with the door closed and the lights off, the office appeared empty from the hallway.

Late one weekend night, when they were chatting on Facebook, McPhetres joked about his “fan club” — the bevy of high school girls who had a crush on Barnett. “Are you part of my fan club?” she recalled him responding. 

McPhetres acknowledged  she had feelings for him. That was the “turning point,” she said. 

She described Barnett stroking her leg, or giving her long, intimate hugs. He never kissed her while she was in high school but explicitly described to her his romantic intentions, according to McPhetres. He asked her about her virginity and once said he wished he could walk her down the aisle one day, she said. 

McPhetres never objected.

“I was literally, like, so wrapped up and infatuated,” she said. “I was 16 and I had someone in my life that finally felt like they cared about me, and so I would have done anything at that point, I think, to continue feeling like I was getting that love from somewhere.”

The fact that Barnett was married with two children roughly her own age only added to the allure, McPhetres said.

By May, he asked her to send him sexually explicit photos of herself, she said. She obliged. 


‘A small school, and how nice’

Randolph, population 4,600, sits alongside I-89 near the midpoint between Lebanon, New Hampshire, and Burlington, between train tracks and a swath of valley farmland. 

The 19th-century brick downtown has an Anywhere, USA vibe: the old train depot-turned-cafe, the barbershop that hands out lollipops to kids, the pink petunias hanging in baskets from the lampposts during the summer.

The area has been rattled by tragedies before. Locals reeled in 2001, when two teenagers from nearby Chelsea stabbed to death two Dartmouth College professors. In 2008, 12-year-old Brooke Bennett, who had been in Earl’s 7th grade class, was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered by her uncle, Michael Jacques. Occasionally, townspeople felt the effects of tragedies more routine but no less potent: opioid overdoses, suicides, quotidian crime.

But these incidents felt like aberrations. I grew up in neighboring Brookfield, and Randolph was my de facto community, the destination for everything from haircuts to creemees. My family picked up hitchhikers and knew the bank tellers. My mom was a community member nonpareil, a perennial volunteer who served first in the PTA and later on the school board.

In the Randolph community, the school “brings everyone together,” according to its guidance counselor. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The school is the linchpin of the community, according to Bev Taft, a guidance counselor who worked with Barnett for nearly a decade. “It brings everyone together,” she said.

“I thought, ‘Oh it’s a small school and how nice, the administration is so involved,” said Sandy McLaughlin, Earl’s mother.

In many ways, Barnett was.

At Randolph, he helped chaperone trips to Japan as part of a school exchange program and showed up to students’ athletic games and theater performances. He sat in the dunk booth during the school’s spring field day.   

“As a principal, Dave Barnett did a good job,” said Brian Kennedy, an 8th grade social studies teacher. At the time, Barnett was respected by teachers and students alike, Kennedy recalled. “He was in key people’s classrooms, he held people accountable, he was personable.”


Signs

But by the winter of McPhetres’ junior year, rumors had started to spread. McPhetres, then 16, said even she had heard about them. 

By spring, word had apparently filtered up to Barnett. McPhetres recalled him telling her that an administrator had asked him questions about rumors involving inappropriate interactions with students. McPhetres didn’t learn the specifics. But because of the inquiry, he warned her that they would have to be more careful, she said. A physical relationship would have to wait until after she graduated and turned 18, she remembered.

In an interview with VTDigger, the administrator in question denied having heard any rumors of inappropriate behavior between Barnett and a student or discussing any related issue with Barnett.

The following gymnastics season, Cathy Jacques, who worked at the school and was a family friend of Earl, asked her offhand whether there was “anything going on” between Barnett and McPhetres, according to Earl. 

Jacques confirmed to VTDigger that she “had (her) suspicions” at the time, but no proof. She declined to comment further.

Earl said Jacques’ question led her to broach the subject with her teammate.

Looking back, these are the moments that give McPhetres pause. Now a nurse and a mandated reporter, she said she makes a point to ask about even small bruises or a suggestion of violence from her patients. 

But no adult ever asked her about the relationship, she said. She likely would have denied it, she acknowledged, but it may have helped her to see the alleged abuse for what it was. Asking the question “would have been a pretty good place to start,” she said. 

Instead, the conversation with the administrator led Barnett to suggest a more surreptitious approach, according to McPhetres: She could do her senior project with him over the summer, working with the local library to promote reading. They both understood that it would allow them to spend time alone together outside of school. 

McPhetres initially agreed, then later decided to switch to another project. Taft, the guidance counselor, said that Barnett seemed unusually bothered by McPhetres’ decision, which in retrospect struck her as strange. 

By 2008, McPhetres’ senior year, she started dating someone, and she and Barnett spoke less frequently, she said. 

But the pair shared an understanding that intimacy was only on hold, according to McPhetres. “We’d continue to have a more romantic and more involved relationship after (graduation) because then it would be OK,” she said.

“Too bad it wasn’t June,” she wrote to Barnett in a March 2009 Facebook message she shared with VTDigger. It was a reference to her 18th birthday. “We have a few more months to make sure you don’t get in trouble.”


‘A safe person’

Earl and I were hardly strangers.

We had grown up a few miles apart, and her dad ran an after-school chess club I attended in 4th grade. I was in the same class as her older brother, and I remember watching her play sweeper on the JV soccer team, charging toward opponents like a torpedo, blonde ponytail streaming behind her.

Invisible to me was the way she traced the same path as McPhetres as the target of Barnett’s overtures.

Rose Earl
Rose Earl trusted David Barnett as a “safe person,” she said, when she was a high school gymnast struggling with her mental health. Earl was photographed last week in Seattle, where she now lives. Meryl Schenker photograph

Earl, like McPhetres, was a gymnast struggling with her mental health. 

She, too, spent time with Barnett as she waited for evening gymnastics practice. Starting in middle school, he became “a safe person,” she said. She’d get a hall pass to go to his office to discuss her growing struggles with depression. 

By 2010, Earl’s 10th grade year, the two began texting and messaging on Facebook. He told her to “get over (her) phone phobia” in an effort to get her to call him, according to messages Earl shared with VTDigger. In later messages, he teased her about being “a boy magnet.”  

That summer, just before she turned 16, Barnett invited her to be on a search committee for a middle school English teacher. That same July, he was promoted from assistant principal to co-principal.

Earl had started eating less — the beginning of what would become an eating disorder. Barnett noticed, she said: After she picked up resumes for applicants, Barnett texted her to say she looked good in her shorts. 

Their relationship intensified. As gymnastics season approached, they started working out together in the weight room after school. One day, as she was leaving his office, he shut off the lights and leaned in. They kissed, she said. 

Later that year, he’d touch her body, first over her clothes — then, later, under them.

Meanwhile Earl had grown intensely aware of her weight. She would routinely run more than 6 miles before a three-hour gymnastics practice, according to then-coach Felicia Dieffenbach. As Earl lost weight and started struggling to complete her routines, Barnett would take her out of practice and tell the coach, “I’m just checking in on her,” Earl recounted.

“That was not what was happening,” she said. 

She went to residential treatment that January for her eating disorder. Barnett called her regularly. Once, he said he loved her, according to Earl. 

At the same time, he’d call her mom and assure her that he was looking out for Earl. He told teachers the same thing, according to Earl. Multiple teachers declined to comment, adding that they hadn’t known anything and that it was too painful a subject to discuss.

He first put his hands in her pants that gymnastics season, she said. She was 16.

That April, Earl later told investigators, they met in a cramped school concession closet across from Barnett’s office.

Her chest was uncovered, according to court documents. Barnett inserted his finger into her vagina and put her hand on his crotch over his clothes. 

Earl never resisted. Looking back, she said, she thinks she was seeking to feel a sense of comfort, “just because I was so starved and miserable.” 

He digitally penetrated her multiple times during that school year, Earl said in court documents.

That spring, Barnett was honored as “secondary prin­cipal of the year” by the Vermont Principals’ Asso­ciation.

Of the four criteria the VPA uses to select a winner, “the one that Barnett feels resonates with him is being able to set workplace conditions to allow motivation and capacity to flourish,” the Herald of Randolph wrote at the time. 


‘An absolute chill’

In the months reporting this story, I have racked my brain for signs I missed when I was a student. I remember girls, mostly gymnasts, parading into Barnett’s office. Several classmates of mine would refer to Barnett as “a creeper” or “a little pervy.” But kids threw around such labels without regard for truth or evidence.

During the winter of 2011, Earl’s gymnastics coach, Dieffenbach, once walked into Barnett’s office and saw Earl lying on a couch. She wouldn’t have thought anything of it, but Earl leapt to her feet as if startled.

“That was the one time I got an absolute chill,” Dieffenbach said. She said she didn’t consider it to be something she ought to report, adding that she knew Earl had mental health challenges and needed extra support.

“I wasn’t sure that was my business,” she said. “You don’t know what’s your place.”

That same season, Earl told a gymnastics teammate about her relationship with Barnett, Earl said. The teammate, who was 15 at the time, confirmed the exchange to VTDigger and said that Earl had asked her not to tell anyone else. She didn’t. 

The woman, who asked not to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject, said she had already felt a sense of unease around Barnett. “There was something strange about him being so close with so many junior high and lower high school girls,” she wrote in a message to VTDigger. “I never felt comfortable around him when my friends would hang out in his office in the afternoons.”

During the fall of Earl’s senior year, she had grown uncomfortable around Barnett. She would walk the long way to class to avoid passing his office. She decided she needed to tell someone. 

Ultimately, Earl penned a handwritten letter to English teacher Jamie Koehnlein Connor, saying she felt uncomfortable around the principal. (Neither kept a copy of the letter.)

Both Earl and Connor confirmed that the letter didn’t name the principal. But as Earl stood in Connor’s classroom waiting for her teacher to read the note, Barnett walked by in the hallway outside, according to an email Connor sent to VTDigger. 

Earl nodded in the direction of the administrator, suggesting to the English teacher that he was the subject of the letter, Connor said.

The letter “did not say anything suggesting an inappropriate relationship or abuse and did not identify Mr. Barnett,” Connor wrote in the email. “I thought that she may have had a negative interaction with Mr. Barnett.” 

Ultimately, Connor went to the director of guidance with the letter and “explained my concern,” she said.

“My understanding is that the director of guidance and school counselors concluded that there was nothing specific warranting further action. As far as I know, nobody at RUHS ever considered that there was any abuse occurring that would trigger a report to DCF,” Connor said, referring to the Department for Children and Families.

Under Vermont’s mandated reporter law, anyone employed by a school district who “reasonably suspects child abuse or neglect” is required to make a report to DCF within 24 hours. 

Earl said the letter marked her attempt to report the abuse, though she acknowledged that she did not specifically describe it. She said she wasn’t aware that Connor had shared the contents of the letter with administrators.

Earl and Connor never spoke about it again, Earl said, and nobody else reached out to her to discuss the letter further. The guidance counselor to whom Connor said she brought the letter declined to comment for this story.

Identifying abuse is not always cut and dried, according to superintendent Layne Millington, whose Orange Southwest School District includes Randolph Union. He took the job in 2017, the same year Barnett was arrested.

A “very trusting, caring community” such as Randolph’s may make staff less likely to view their colleagues or community members through a lens of suspicion, Millington said.

“Unless you’re actively thinking about stuff, you may not pick up on the subtle nuances that might tell you something,” he said. “People just aren’t thinking along those lines.”

Earl avoided the principal for the rest of the year, she said. She broke down sobbing as she prepared for high school graduation. She dreaded the moment she’d receive her diploma and pose for a photo with the principal, her hand caught in a prolonged congratulatory handshake.


‘I should have known’

As the two women left Randolph, Barnett followed them.

McPhetres said her former principal got back in touch in 2011, soon after she transferred to the nursing program at Castleton University. The next year, when she was 20, Barnett invited her over to his home one evening when his wife and kids were away, McPhetres said. They had sex, she said.

McPhetres described it as a moment in which her ideas of consent had been fully melted down, remolded and reframed by Barnett’s persuasions. 

“(I lost) so much trust and faith in myself for not recognizing it,” she said. She remains ridden with a deep-seated sense of shame. Consent, she said, has become a concept that is “really hard for me to grasp.” 

When McPhetres was 21, Barnett visited her at her apartment in East Randolph. They kissed, she said, but she pulled back, saying that she had a boyfriend.

Barnett persisted. “My distracting thoughts might be remembering back to one particular night,” Barnett wrote in a 2014 Facebook message McPhetres shared with VTDigger, in an apparent reference to the 2011 incident. 

He would have the house to himself that weekend, he told her. She would be working, she responded. 

“I’ll just have to use my imagination and hope the stars align again one day,” he wrote to her.

The last time McPhetres heard from him was in 2016, she said, when, after nearly a year of silence, Barnett invited her to visit. He asked her to come to his hotel room in Killington, where he was attending a conference. She ignored his text, she said. 

Barnett simultaneously kept in touch with Earl, as well. She talked to him off and on during college, especially during her lowest points, as she once again sought treatment for her eating disorder and struggled in school. 

Then, in the fall of 2017, he came up to visit her while she was living in Maine, with the explicit promise of sex, she said. 

When he texted her inviting her to a hotel, she panicked. “I don’t want to go, and I feel like I have to go,” she told a friend. Earl said the friend snatched her phone, texted Barnett that Earl wouldn’t be coming, and then blocked his number.


The shattered glass

They came forward together, spurred on by outrage at the other’s experience. By November 2017, within weeks of Barnett’s trip to Maine, Earl had spoken about the relationship to her therapist and messaged McPhetres on Facebook to ask again the same question she had nine years earlier. 

This time, McPhetres said the revelation felt like a devastating blow. 

“It felt like there was like a giant glass window just shattered,” McPhetres said. “I realized, ‘Oh, I wasn’t just special. This was something he did … to other people.’”

She was racked by guilt that Barnett had also victimized Earl.

“Because I didn’t say anything and I didn’t come forward, he did this to her,” she said.

For Earl as well, it was no longer merely a personal decision to come forward. “Realizing that it had happened to each other … just kind of fueled our anger,” she said. 

McPhetres said she and Earl messaged each other on Facebook about Barnett in November 2017. “It felt like there was like a giant glass window just shattered,” McPhetres said. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

McPhetres said she reported the abuse to guidance counselor Colin Andrzejczyk, who then alerted the Department for Children and Families and the police. Andrzejczyk, who still works at the high school, declined to comment for this story.

Earl said she came forward that same day, revealing Barnett’s name to her Maine-based therapist, who in turn called Vermont authorities. 

Barnett was placed on paid leave in Randolph.

Earl, who was home for the holidays, told her parents on Christmas Day. As her parents and brother sat around the wood stove in the living room, she delivered the news that she would be going to the sheriff’s office the following day.

McLaughlin marveled at her daughter’s calm resolve. Her stepfather was so angry he left the room, Earl said. 

The news rocked McLaughlin as well. “To think that I could have been so naive,” she said. “I feel so guilty that I didn’t know something was going on or I wasn’t able to protect her.”

That disbelief would echo throughout more than a dozen interviews — the sense that “it can’t be in our community,” as put by Linda Ingold, executive director of the domestic violence support nonprofit Safeline.

“It’s rattled our sense of security because I never had an inkling,” said Taft. “Sometimes you sit there and think, ‘Wow, am I in the right profession?’ How did I miss this?”


‘Ask her about justice’

The case would drag through the court system for nearly four years. Even with the authorities now involved, the response was not as McPhetres and Earl had hoped.

The two women had wanted McPhetres to take the lead in bringing forward evidence and testifying for criminal proceedings — in her case, a potential charge related to the explicit photos she allegedly sent Barnett. She was the older one and felt responsible for Earl as a “little sister,” especially, she said, because she hadn’t reported anything earlier.

McPhetres said she turned over to Orange County investigators a flash drive and, later, her laptop, which included the explicit photos, as well as Facebook messages and other communications she had exchanged with Barnett.  

Afterward, McPhetres returned home to Colchester and agonized over the case. She started having panic attacks at her job as a nurse at University of Vermont Medical Center. She stopped taking the shuttle — a repurposed school bus — to work because it reminded her of Barnett. She dreaded the prospect of testifying before her former principal and being forced to meet his eye.

At one point, feeling suicidal, she checked herself into ASSIST, the Burlington program for crisis stabilization. 

It was from there she says she called the Orange County investigators and learned the devastating news: The statute of limitations had expired by the time she came forward, they told her.

Authorities also could not prove, she remembers being told, that Barnett had asked for the photos she had sent him. There would be no case.

McPhetres wrestled for weeks over whether to allow me to use her name in this story. She agreed because she hoped it would serve as the validation she never received in court.

Meanwhile, at Randolph Union, superintendent Millington and the school board instructed the district’s lawyer to conduct an internal investigation.

They wanted closure as the police investigation dragged out, said Angelo Odato, who chaired the board at the time.

Odato’s term ended in March 2018, and he never saw the results of the inquiry, he said. Four former school board members declined to comment or did not return calls. 

In April 2018, Barnett was fired on a 7-0 school board vote. Among those voting for his removal was my mom, Laura Rochat, who succeeded Odato as chair. (To reduce the potential for a conflict of interest, I did not speak with her about the contents of this story.)

The investigation, which Millington said included interviews and a sweep of all emails and complaints, was never made public. It could not be provided to VTDigger because it involved a personnel issue, Millington said.

David Barnett and attorney in court
Former Randolph Union High School co-principal David Barnett, right, stands with his attorney Brooks McArthur as Barnett is arraigned on a sexual exploitation of a minor offense at Orange Superior Court in Chelsea in April 2018. Valley News file – Geoff Hansen

For Earl, the court proceedings felt interminable. McArthur, Barnett’s attorney, tried to have the case dismissed, citing a lack of evidence. The Covid-19 pandemic led to further delays. In court documents, McArthur cited the challenge Barnett faced homeschooling his daughter during the pandemic. 

At the March 24 Orange County court hearing, Judge Thomas Zonay presided stiffly over his Zoom-screen courtroom and laid out the details of the case with the anatomical specificity befitting a high school health teacher.

He rattled off a list of conditions of the plea deal, and Barnett, who participated by phone, acknowledged in terse monosyllables that he could be convicted by a jury. 

Earl, who silently listened in by phone, wasn’t given an opportunity to speak. 

But later she said she found some satisfaction in hearing her former principal agree to the plea deal: 30 days in prison, registration as a sex offender and $15,000 — at a rate of $100 a month — to be paid to Earl and her family to cover her mental health and eating disorder treatment costs. 

Before the hearing, I asked Orange County State’s Attorney Will Porter whether he saw the proposed plea deal as just. That, the prosecutor said, is a layman’s question. 

Justice is “a sneaky concept,” said Porter, who retired days after the March hearing. “When we negotiate agreements, many are negotiated on the strength of the charges.”

People outside the justice system often perceive sentences all over the board, he added. Indeed, Dean Stearns, a former principal at nearby South Royalton, received a much harsher sentence — five years in prison — for filming teenage girls at his home in 2018. 

Porter was satisfied, he hastened to add, if Earl was satisfied. She approved the plea deal. “Ask her about justice, I guess,” the prosecutor said. 

Earl said she was content to know that Barnett would never teach again and would spend some time in jail. 

Mostly, she wants it to be over. “It’s just been a long process,” she said. 

The delayed hearings and inability to proceed with McPhetres’ case highlight the incompatability of sexual violence cases with the broader criminal justice system, said Karen Tronsgard-Scott, executive director of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence. 

The court process was constructed under the assumption that when a crime occurred, the victim could — and would — immediately call the cops. “That’s not how it happens in sexual harm,” Tronsgard-Scott said. 

Reckoning with abuse “occurs across the lifetime,” she said, pointing to the child abuse survivors at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Burlington who came forward decades later. 

“People don’t want to take action until they’re ready to take action,” she said. “Our legal system wasn’t built for that.”

McPhetres saw prosecutors’ decision not to pursue her case as a personal rebuff.

“The message that I got was that I waited too long, and what happened with me wasn’t really that bad because nothing physical happened,” McPhetres said. “So in their books, you know, it’s not that big of a deal.”


Still processing

When I visited on a Thursday afternoon in May, little at Randolph Union appeared to have changed since I was a student 11 years ago. As the school day ended, students flooded from the weathered brick building toward the line of waiting buses that glinted in the spring sun. Kids pulled down their masks to call flirty remarks at their departing friends, and a shaggy-haired boy gunned the engine of his mud-splattered pickup.

Randolph Union High School’s attempts to help students process the arrest of their principal mostly fell flat. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Students at Randolph have mostly moved on after Barnett’s arrest, said Kennedy, the 8th grade social studies teacher. Occasionally, he hears a cutting sarcastic remark about the incident, which he attributes to an underlying sense of anger. “They were tricked; they were fooled by someone who did something terrible,” he said.

Only when new court briefs are filed or when the press writes a story about the case does a buzz of speculation rise up in town.

“When you know someone from Randolph, and when the conversation lags in other areas, they’re likely to take it up,” Porter said.

The dearth of information left more questions than answers, according to Elijah Hawkes, the principal of Randolph who was hired in 2011.

“You don’t even know if you should be angry, or if you should be guilty, or if you should be sad, or if you feel all of those things at once,” he said. 

Meanwhile, the school’s attempts to help students process the arrest of their principal mostly fell flat. 

After Barnett was placed on leave, Hawkes and Millington, the superintendent, sent a Q&A update to parents that had the sterility of an IRS filing. 

“(A)fter a lengthy independent investigation and considerable deliberation, the board voted unanimously in open session to terminate David Barnett’s employment with the district based on the recommendation of the superintendent pursuant to the termination agreement discussed by the parties, attorneys and agreed to in principle, pending ratification by both parties,” Millington wrote in the missive. 

Staff felt bewildered, but most processed alone, said Taft.

When Randolph offered therapy sessions to teachers and faculty in spring 2018, only she and one other counselor showed up, Taft said.

She said she has found herself adopting a hawk-eyed supervision of students, which she acknowledged may be overly protective.

“The sense of safety and trust was broken,” she said.

Kennedy never used to think about whether his classroom door was open, he said. Now, it’s reflexive. “I’m opening my door. We’re going to sit down someplace that’s visible,” he said. “I just think people are more aware. And afraid.”


How to keep going

McPhetres now lives in Colchester with her dog, Odin. On most days, at least, she is not defined by her high school principal. She works 30 hours a week as an operating room nurse at University of Vermont Medical Center. 

McPhetres has spent the past four years rebuilding her trust in herself and in her own judgment, reframing and rewriting her relationship with Barnett as survivor and victim, rather than complicit perpetrator. 

“It was a total loss in my faith in my ability to judge situations and people,” she said. “I’ve been lying to myself about something for 10 years. How do I now keep going? How do I keep surviving in this world?” 

Earl moved to Seattle, where she now takes classes at a community college and works at a local co-op. She has tried dating. But in moments of intimacy with a partner, she often finds herself breaking down crying, she said.

“It doesn’t go over super well with whoever you’re with,” she said. She assures her partner that it’s not their fault. 

Her childhood home in Brookfield has become claustrophobic. Within a few days, the memories start to overwhelm her. She sees the places in Randolph where she and Barnett talked, and the couch in her living room where she texted him for hours while her parents sat just feet away. She welcomes the return to Seattle. 

Ultimately, Earl wants to graduate from college, perhaps teach — or maybe not. She tries to sit in the tension of uncertainty, and learn to build a future on her own terms.

“At 25 years old you’re supposed to have your job figured out and have a little more stability, and I try to remind myself that there have been these extenuating circumstances,” she said. 

Earl knows one thing: When the sentencing arrives and she’s invited to speak, she will stand up and say her part. 

She has imagined looking Barnett squarely in the face. “Yes, this happened,” she would say.

Her statement will affirm that “this is wrong,” she said. “I’m telling you this is wrong and it’s not just like a bunch of lawyers telling you it’s wrong.”

“You caused some serious damage,” she’d tell him. “But also, I’m OK.”

Rose Earl
Earl sits for a portrait last week in Seattle. Meryl Schenker photograph

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated who succeeded Angelo Odato as chair of the school board. 

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Katie Jickling

About Katie

Katie Jickling covers health care for VTDigger. She previously reported on Burlington city politics for Seven Days. She has freelanced and interned for half a dozen news organizations, including Vermont Public Radio, the Valley News, Northern Woodlands, Eating Well magazine and the Herald of Randolph. She is a graduate of Hamilton College and a native of Brookfield.

Email: [email protected]

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