DA: Other students complained about Essex Tech teacher's behavior

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

And, according to the prosecutor, the school's response to those complaints included calling some of the 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, who was in his early 60s at the time, know he was standing too close, touching them, or making them uncomfortable.

Those details are part of a motion filed by prosecutor Gabrielle Foote Clark, who is seeking to have two of the students testify in Vandenbulcke's trial to show a pattern of behavior by the defendant 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 dislike of his client.

The trial, which had been scheduled to begin Wednesday in Salem District Court, was postponed until November as a result of the newly revealed information.

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

Vandenbulcke has pleaded not guilty.

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

As multiple witnesses waited outside, the prosecutor and LaFlamme addressed Judge Randy Chapman about Clark's motion, which LaFlamme said he had been sent Tuesday evening and had not seen until Wednesday morning.

Clark said she wants to show jurors that the similar behavior reported by other students was part of a pattern of "grooming" students by "standing too close, paying special attention to them or flattery, and making excuses to be alone with them."

Then, she told the judge, Vandenbulcke would make physical contact and "make it look like somewhat of an accident."

While evidence of similar prior conduct by a defendant is seen as potentially biasing a jury, it is sometimes allowed in order to try to prove the behavior was not an accident, or to show a pattern or common scheme, among other grounds.

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

Vandenbulcke frequently asked her to help him get items from the storeroom and walk-in freezer. One day when she pointed out that he had picked up the wrong item, Vandenbulcke told her he was "distracted" by the her and called her "mesmerizing," according to the prosecutor's filing.

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

"She was told the school called the meeting to clear up any issues before the next rotation, when the school was intending her to go back to the defendant's culinary class," the prosecutor said. "During the meeting, (the) defendant apologized and said he didn't mean anything and that he took back everything he did to her. He asked her to use a 'sign' to tell him if he is standing too close to her (put her hands up with the fingers outstretched) or say 'take five steps back,' which would prompt (the) defendant to realize his closeness was inappropriate," the prosecutor wrote.

The other students at the meeting also complained about Vandenbulcke's behavior. One of them later told police that the staff "came up with a signal" that she could use to let Vandenbulcke know if he was too close to her.

Another student at that meeting told police he was called back for a second meeting where Vandenbulcke was present. The student told police that he wasn't comfortable with the defendant being there, but went along with the staff's suggestion to work out a signal because he didn't want to deal with repercussions.

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

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

Another student told police Vandenbulcke touched her on the shoulder and leg to move her out of the way several times one day.

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

LaFlamme objected to allowing any of the students to testify, though he acknowledged that some of the information is potentially admissible.

He also said, however, that he was not anticipating that the prosecutor would seek to use the information since she did not mention it during a previous trial conference. He said he would now need more time to prepare his defense.

LaFlamme also suggested that there may have been a "groundswell of students trying to get rid of him because they didn't like him."

Essex Tech Superintendent Heidi Riccio, reached for comment after the hearing, cited student confidentiality as a reason for not discussing the accusations.

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

Asked about the prosecutor's remarks and filing, Riccio declined to comment. "Again, I wasn't in the courtroom," Riccio said. "It's difficult to comment on something I didn't hear."

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

Asked about whether she was familiar with the accusations from the motion or from police reports, Riccio said she hadn't seen any of those and could not comment.

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

"We have a very caring and loving and supportive school district, and we continue to follow the policies of our district," Riccio added.

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

"It's not for us to comment on student or personnel matters to the press," she said.

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

Asked if the school had adopted any new policies, such as teachers being alone with students, either in a walk-in freezer or elsewhere, she said teachers do take part in professional development training where they discuss best practices around being alone with students.

Asked if the school has made any updates to its policy in the wake of the complaints, Riccio said the school's policies have "consistently been the same."

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis

Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis