DA: Other students complained about the Essex Tech teacher’s behavior

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Sept. 22 — DANVERS — Six other students filed complaints with school officials about an Essex Tech culinary arts teacher in the weeks before he was charged with indecent assault and beating a student in 2019, a prosecutor revealed before the court on Wednesday. court.

And according to the prosecutor, the school’s response to those complaints included summoning some students to an office, where the accused teacher, Robert Vandenbulcke, was also present. The students say they were asked to come up with a “signal” they could use to let Vandenbulcke, then in his early 60s, know that he was standing too close, touching them or making them uncomfortable.

Those details are part of a motion filed by prosecutor Gabrielle Foote Clark, seeking to have two of the students testify in Vandenbulcke’s trial to demonstrate a defendant’s behavior pattern at the time of the alleged indecent assault.

Vandenbulcke’s attorney, Gerard LaFlamme, suggested in court that the student complaints may have been motivated by his client’s dislike.

The trial, which was set to begin Wednesday in the Salem court, was postponed to November due to the newly revealed information.

Vandenbulcke, 65, of Salisbury, was arrested and charged with two counts of indecent assault and assault in November 2019 after a then 16-year-old student reported that the teacher had twice touched the front of his pants, once while the student was grabbing a towel and the second time while adjusting a burner on a stove.

Vandenbulcke pleads innocent.

Before joining the Essex Tech Faculty, Vandenbulcke worked at the Greater Lawrence Vocational Technical School in Andover. He was also a well-known restaurant owner and chef in the Newburyport area.

While several witnesses waited outside, the district attorney and LaFlamme spoke to Judge Randy Chapman about Clark’s request, which LaFlamme said was sent Tuesday night and hadn’t seen until Wednesday morning.

Clark said she wants to show the judges that the similar behavior reported by other students was part of a pattern of “nurturing” students by “standing too close, giving them special attention or flattering them, and making excuses.” invent to be alone with them.”

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She then told the judge that Vandenbulcke would make physical contact and “make it look like an accident.”

While evidence of similar previous behavior by a defendant is seen as potentially biased before a jury, it is sometimes permissible to try to prove that the behavior was not an accident, or to show a pattern or common plan, among other things.

A girl is expected to testify that she filed a complaint with the school board that Vandenbulcke had twice touched her buttocks with the back of his hand, made inappropriate comments and repeatedly stood too close to her, so that the two had physical contact.

Vandenbulcke regularly asked her to help him get things from the warehouse and the walk-in freezer. One day, pointing out that he had taken the wrong item, Vandenbulcke told her he was “distracted” by her and called her “fascinating,” according to the prosecution’s file.

After the girl had formally reported the incident, she was recalled to the school office, where Vandenbulcke was also present, along with an administrator, a counselor and two other students.

“She was told that the school had convened the meeting to resolve any issues before the next rotation, when the school planned to return to the defendant’s culinary class,” the prosecutor said. During the meeting,[the]complainant apologized and said he didn’t mean anything and that he took back everything he had done to her. He asked her to use a ‘sign’ to tell him if he is standing too close to her (her hands with straightened fingers) or say ‘take five steps back’, which would make (the) defendant realize that his proximity was inappropriate,” the prosecutor wrote.

The other students at the meeting also complained about Vandenbulcke’s behaviour. One of them later told police that the staff had “devised a signal” that she could use to let Vandenbulcke know if he was too close to her.

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Another student at that meeting told police he was being recalled to a second meeting where Vandenbulcke was present. The student told police he wasn’t comfortable with the defendant being there, but went along with the staff’s suggestion to work out a signal as he didn’t want to face any repercussions.

The second potential witness reported to school officials in September 2019 that Vandenbulcke “repeatedly invaded her personal space,” and that when she moved, he went with her, according to the filing.

Police also spoke to two additional students. One of them told police she had been touched on the buttocks by Vandenbulcke with enough pressure to make her believe it was intentional, and had seen him grab students’ hips to move them as he walked past, even though he was there is room to walk by.

Another student told the police that Vandenbulcke had touched her on the shoulder and leg several times a day to push her aside.

Clark said she has not ruled out calling those students as witnesses when the case goes to trial, now slated for Nov. 21.

LaFlamme objected to allowing one of the students to testify, although he acknowledged that some of the information may be admissible.

However, he also said he did not expect the prosecutor to try to use the information, as she did not mention it at a previous trial conference. He said he would now need more time to prepare his defense.

LaFlamme also suggested there may have been a “tidal wave of students trying to get rid of him because they didn’t like him”.

Essex Tech Superintendent Heidi Riccio, who asked for comment after the hearing, cited student confidentiality as the reason for not discussing the allegations.

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“I will say that we follow the policies of our school district and take every complaint seriously and do what is in the best interests of our students,” Riccio said.

Asked about the prosecutor’s comments and file, Riccio declined to comment. “Again, I wasn’t in court,” Riccio said. “It’s hard to comment on something I haven’t heard.”

As a witness in the case, Riccio would be expected to wait outside the courtroom in a conference room or hallway.

When asked whether she was aware of the allegations from the motion or from police reports, Riccio said she had not seen any of those allegations and was unable to comment.

“As soon as we handed it over to the police, they took over the case,” she said.

“We have a very caring, loving and supportive school district and we will continue to follow our district’s policies,” added Riccio.

Riccio declined to answer questions about Vandenbulcke or about the meetings where students reported being asked to come up with a signal.

“It is not our place to comment on student or human resources matters to the press,” she said.

She said she was not part of the gatherings the students described.

When asked if the school has adopted new policies such as teachers being alone with students, in a walk-in freezer, or elsewhere, she said teachers do participate in professional development training where they discuss best practices around being alone with students.

When asked if the school has changed its policies in response to the complaints, Riccio said the school’s policies have been “consistently the same.”

Court reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

Court reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at [email protected] or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

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