Jury clears Essex Tech teacher in student assault – The Salem News

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Updated: November 23, 2022 @ 11:17 am
Robert Vandenbulcke, of Salisbury, was cleared of indecent assault and battery charges by a jury on Tuesday. Here, he is seen walking out of Salem District Court following his arraignment in November 2019.

Robert Vandenbulcke, of Salisbury, was cleared of indecent assault and battery charges by a jury on Tuesday. Here, he is seen walking out of Salem District Court following his arraignment in November 2019.
DANVERS — Robert Vandenbulcke told a Salem District Court jury Tuesday that the three Essex Tech students who accused him of inappropriate physical contact with them were either lying or mistaken.
When asked specifically whether he’d twice touched the front of one student’s pants, over his genitals, with the back of his hand, Vandenbulcke, 65, conceded, “It’s possible,” but said he has no memory of any physical contact with the then-16-year-old boy.
But he was adamant that if it did happen, it was an accident in a kitchen at the Danvers school, where, he said (and the boy later disputed) a cart partially blocked the area near the stove where he and the teen were standing.
“At any point did you ever intentionally touch (the student’s) penis?” defense lawyer Gerard LaFlamme asked.
“No, I did not,” Vandenbulcke answered.
A couple of hours later, the jury of four men and two women agreed, finding Vandenbulcke, 65, of Salisbury, not guilty of two counts of indecent assault and battery on the boy.
LaFlamme, Vandenbulcke’s attorney, said the speed with which the jury returned its verdict — a little more than half an hour after going into deliberations — “speaks volumes about the charges and the evidence. I think they made the right choice.”
Vandenbulcke was not charged in connection with accusations by three other students, two of whom testified that he’d touched their buttocks.
As the jury delivered the verdict just after 4:30 p.m., the former student grasped the back of the bench in front of him, and appeared visibly upset, his face reddening. He and his parents left the courtroom.
But even with Judge Randy Chapman warning jurors they could consider the testimony of the other students only to decide whether they believed the contact with the boy was intentional or an accident, the prior accusations — and the school’s failure to report them to police until after the boy made the report — was a central theme of the district attorney’s case.
Prosecutor Gabrielle Foote repeatedly pressed a defense witness, Vandenbulcke’s former supervisor Don Ducharme, about his failure to make any notes of his interviews with the students or to notify police or the school resource officer.
It was only after the boy’s father called police that the school disclosed the other student complaints — and that they’d set up meetings between Vandenbulcke and the students to “talk it out.”
But Chapman cautioned jurors to consider only what allegedly happened between the boy and Vandenbulcke on Nov. 12, 2019.
Vandenbulcke, a former chef, restaurant owner and instructor, called that day “the worst day of my life” at least twice while on the witness stand in his own defense.
Later, in his closing argument to the jury, LaFlamme contended that the boy’s account did not make sense.
“If he was indecently touched once and he had information from his friends that something had happened to them, why in God’s name would you go back … there when he’s alone, to make a sauce?” LaFlamme asked jurors in his closing argument. “Why would you do that? That flies in the face of common sense. A 16-year-old kid who has just been touched and feels disgusted, he feels violated, is not going to go back.”
LaFlamme also suggested that the boy could have called his father, who was planning to visit the school at lunchtime, or gone to the school resource officer.
He suggested other details the boy testified to were details to “fit his narrative.”
Foote argued that at the time of the allegations involving the boy, however, Vandenbulcke was on notice, having been brought into the office to hear the complaints of the other students a week earlier.
“He wasn’t oblivious to fact he was making people uncomfortable,” Foote argued. “He didn’t care.”
She suggested that the boy’s account was consistent with the sort of “shock” a teenager would experience after such an event, raising her voice to tell the jury, “That’s normal. Everything (he) did was normal, but what the defendant did was not,” Foote argued.
“This wasn’t an accident,” Foote argued. “Accidents don’t happen to one person twice in five minutes and they don’t happen to multiple people in the same way.”
Vandenbulcke testified that he is now retired from teaching. He surrendered his teaching license after his arrest, and in recent years has worked at various points for his adult children’s businesses.
Courts reporter Julie Manganis can be reached at 978-338-2521, by email at jmanganis@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @SNJulieManganis
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