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Madison County student breaks silence on former teacher’s illicit photography charges

<i></i><br/>Maleena Rector
Lawrence, Nakia

Maleena Rector

By Taylor Thompson

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    MARSHALL, North Carolina (WLOS) — A Madison County High School student is concerned a plea deal may be in the works for a former teacher accused of secretly taking photos and videos of students.

Robert Burnette was arrested on 47 felony charges in May 2022 after authorities said he was caught taking photos of and recording students.

Now, one of the students and her mother are worried Burnette may not get the punishment they think he deserves.

Maleena Rector, now a senior at Madison County High, was a freshman when she walked into Burnette’s math class in August 2020.

She said she and her friends got “weird vibes” from their teacher, but it was a few months before events took a turn.

“I was wearing a tank top, skirt, cardigan, just a normal September outfit. And I have horrible posture, so I was slouched down on my computer. And that’s when I saw that he was taking a picture of me,” Rector said.

She said she called Burnette out in front of the class and, while he denied taking the photo, Rector said she knew what happened.

Rector rode home with her best friend and her dad from school that day and immediately broke down crying, her mom Shelly Moriarty said.

“When she saw her best friend’s father, she broke down in tears and he asked, of course, what was wrong. And she said I think I caught my teacher trying to take a picture and look down my shirt,” she said.

Moriarty said she went to the principal’s office that day and, when she left the meeting with the principal, she was told there would be an investigation.

She said it was almost two weeks before school officials contacted them to explain Burnette’s reason for taking the photo.

“He was doing a project on the effects of teaching during COVID to show social distancing, masks,” Moriarty said she was told.

While Moriarty said that explanation never sat right with her, time moved on and so did they.

Rector recalled her time after that in Burnette’s class, saying it seemed odd how much freedom they had.

“Doing TikTok videos and he would allow us to make TikTok videos even if we weren’t done with our work,” she said.

Rector said there was a closet Burnette would students use to hang out in, just one of many things he did that was odd for a teacher to do.

Worried, Moriarty went to the principal’s office for a second time to express her concerns.

“There’s a line there, and a line was being crossed,” she said.

Moriarty said she even tried to get Rector switched into a different math class, but there weren’t any other teachers and Rector needed the credits.

For Moriarty, her feelings about the incident never went away — it was a constant conversation.

Finally, on May 24, 2022, they received a phone call.

Moriarty recalled Rector calling her on the phone, sobbing. her daughter had received a text from one of her friends showing Burnette’s mugshot.

“He had 47 felonies, and she said you know it was true, he was taking pictures of you,” Rector said.

They got a call from the Madison County Sheriff’s Office shortly after, and that’s when Moriarty said they were told authorities had found photos of Rector and Burnette had placed secret cameras in the classroom.

Moriarty said she was hurt and angry and wondered why the photos and camera were not found when they originally took their concerns about Burnette to the principal.

“That’s when they told me that there was never an investigation — the sheriff’s department was never notified, the DSS was never notified,” Moriarty said.

Moriarty said, if school officials had just done their jobs, there wouldn’t be more than 15 victims now.

“It was a large slap in the face, to say the least,” Moriarty said.

Rector said she knew she was right and it really hurt her mental health because she’s had a hard time trusting men, especially teachers.

Since the incident in 2020 and Burnette’s arrest in 2022, it’s been a slow process to justice, Rector said.

“You go to court, it gets continued, like, everything, I feel like, is just being put under the rug,” she said.

Since everything came to light, Moriarty said they’ve learned Rector was the first person to come forward and accuse Burnette. But he was finally arrested when another victim recorded him in the act.

“She caught him coming to look over, acting like he was checking her work, and she caught him taking a picture down her shirt,” Moriarty said.

Moriarty said the victims and their parents recently had a meeting with the district attorney’s office to discuss a plea deal with Burnette and what it would look like.

“The DA says, ‘OK, each victim will get one felony and one felony alone that he will be charged with.’ So, that takes the number of felonies from 47 to under 20. He will receive no jail time, he will just receive probation,” Moriarty said.

She said Burnette will also be put on the sex offender list.

“I don’t understand why he’s not going to go to jail for this,” Rector said.

News 13 reached out to the district attorney’s office for a comment regarding the plea deal but has not gotten a response.

Nonetheless, Rector said she is trying to use her experience to be a voice for other girls who may have gone through or are going through a similar situation.

“I want to make a difference, and I want other girls who are going through something like this and are too scared to speak up, I want them to speak up,” she said.

According to the Madison County Superior Court website, Burnette’s court date is set for Jan. 2, 2024.

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