Denial vs duty: When faced with complaints of inappropriate behavior, many fail to heed warning signs

  • In US
  • 2022-09-28 13:59:00Z
  • By Gloucester Daily Times, Mass.

Sep. 28-DANVERS - When administrators or colleagues first hear complaints of inappropriate behavior or suspected sexual abuse by a teacher or co-worker, the first reaction is often denial, experts say.

"When a person accuses a powerful individual of wrongdoing, the reaction is often to be angry at the person making the accusation," said veteran Boston attorney Carmen Durso, who has represented more than 1,000 victims of sexual abuse - including a group of men who say in a civil lawsuit filed last month that they were abused by former Peabody teacher James Toltz.

Durso, citing research, said the attitude of some educators is, "we're all in this together."

And even when a teacher or youth worker's conduct is found to have been improper or even illegal, some districts still will "take the easy way out," allowing the employee to resign rather than go through a lengthy grievance process.

Durso and others who work with victims of sexual abuse by trusted adults say that the recent revelation of prior complaints about Essex Tech teacher Robert Vandenbulcke's alleged boundary violations with other students, prior to his arrest on indecent assault and battery charges three years ago, is not entirely surprising, or unprecedented.

Neither is how school officials handled it - allegedly bringing the students into the same room with the teacher and then asking them to devise signals that would put the responsibility on them to let the teacher know he was too close or making them uncomfortable, Durso and others said.

A prevention plan

Sen. Joan Lovely, a Salem Democrat, points to estimates that one in four girls and one in 13 boys will experience some form of sexual abuse.

Lovely said she plans to re-file a package of proposed legislation in January that would, among several other things, require school districts and youth programs to adopt specific standards and a code of conduct, as well as mandate reporting of suspected sexual abuse to the state Department of Children and Families, and training.

"We believe it's been thoroughly vetted and is ready to go," said Lovely.

A standardized policy would take out the personal feelings someone might have about a colleague, she said. It would spell out what acts are considered boundary violations and train educators and youth workers to spot the signs of someone potentially "grooming" a victim.

"Sexual abuse is so hard to talk about," said Lovely.

Parents often "can't imagine it could happen to their child," she said. and educators and others can't imagine that their colleague or a seemingly dedicated coach or volunteer would do anything to harm a kid.

It's also, she believes, preventable. If people not only know what to look for - even innocuous-seeming physical contact can be a warning sign - but are also required to report it "up and out" to the proper authorities, she believes many instances can be stopped before they happen.

"This is a prevention plan," said Lovely.

Behind the curve

Jetta Bernier said she was both surprised and not surprised by last week's report that other students had been asked to not only meet in the same room with the teacher they had expressed concerns about - but that the onus was placed on them to come up with a signal to give to the teacher to let him know he was too close or making them uncomfortable.

"This is a great example of why we need to do so much more," said Bernier, director of the advocacy group MassKids. "This is not something we should leave up to children."

Her organization is one of several that offer training to school districts and youth programs on recognizing boundary violations before they escalate.

Bernier said she's learned of one situation where a principal, told of an accusation against a teacher, told that teacher about it and then warned, "watch your back," and another case in which a principal apologized to a teacher for having to discuss an allegation.

"All of us have different levels of conflict tolerance," said Bernier.

There is no consistent training mandated in Massachusetts schools on the issue - putting Massachusetts behind the curve nationally. Across the country 36 states and the District of Columbia now mandate some training and have set policies on conduct - though the legislation Lovely and other lawmakers have proposed would put the state back in the forefront, Bernier said.

"There needs to be some high-quality training for administrators, so when they are confronted with a situation there are clear protocols," she said. "We understand so well the fears and biases about not wanting to rock the boat," said Bernier, and of wanting to give someone you know the benefit of the doubt. "We understand that," she said. "No one wants to call someone out."

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

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


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