In the few hours before he boarded a flight to France, Jean Phillipe Vauchel paused to recount the tumultuous series of events that brought him to the United States and, ultimately, sent him back home again. It began in 2000, with an opportunity to launch a French immersion program at the fledgling International School of Louisiana (ISL). It ended with parents of two children accusing him of battering their sons. Vauchel left his job in disgrace.
On June 11, Vauchel had his day in municipal court to answer to misdemeanor battery charges. But the trial never got off the ground. For one thing, says Vauchel attorney Bill Rittenberg, no one could fully explain why the case was heard in municipal court and not in criminal court, where such cases are usually tried. But the trial really ended when the first and most crucial witnesses -- the first-grade boys who had accused Vauchel of punching them -- were called to the witness stand.
There, they faced a room that included Vauchel -- but none of their parents. One child told ad hoc Judge Johnny Blanchard that he sometimes made up stories. The judge dismissed him. The second boy froze -- unable to answer even basic questions. Vauchel was declared not guilty.
For Vauchel, a French native, the loss of his job cost him his work visa in the United States. He says negative publicity about the case -- particularly a May 6 article in Gambit Weekly -- hampered his efforts to secure another teaching position here.
"I love my job, and I love working with the children," says the former first-grade teacher, who was asked to leave ISL in March after police investigated two of his students' claims that he had punched them. "I had a very good time at ISL for three years," Vauchel says. "I did nothing wrong."
On his way to the airport to catch a flight to France, Vauchel carried a stack of forms signed in February -- before the alleged incident -- by parents who had indicated they wanted him to teach their kids again the following year. "The majority of parents supported me," Vauchel says. He shows off his students' cards and art projects that praise him as their teacher and displays notes from parents asking his advice. ISL employee evaluation forms, too, classify Vauchel as excellent, with handwritten comments lauding him as "a true asset to the program."
Vauchel, who completed a Ph.D. in French literature, earned two teaching certificates in France, wrote a thesis on child enrichment, and had 16 years' worth of teaching experience, had been hand-picked to lead the French immersion program at ISL. So what went wrong?
Reese Johansen, one of the mothers who accused Vauchel of battery, says the teacher demonstrated a pattern of improper behavior toward students -- losing his temper and lashing out physically in ways that included pushing, throwing, kicking and locking kids in the bathroom. It culminated in a March 20 incident in which Vauchel allegedly punched her son Sebastien and Juleigh Hebert's son Mason, both mothers say.
Vauchel denies all the accusations. He says he could indeed be strict -- that he sought to strike a balance in the classroom between his stern demeanor and the gentle approach of his assistant teacher, Virginie Dufieux -- and that he would raise his voice. But he insists his discipline methods never extended beyond that. "To be aggressive with a small child -- it's not possible for me to get to that," he says. "How can you lose your temper if you are trying to teach respect?"
In the beginning of the school year, when initial allegations of improper behavior surfaced, Vauchel says he asked to speak directly with the parents who were accusing him, but that ISL's then-principal Ron Mintz wouldn't allow it. He says Mintz instead stipulated that Dufieux should never leave Vauchel alone in the classroom with the children. Johansen and Hebert claim Mintz did this to safeguard the children from Vauchel's temper. Vauchel maintains it was to protect him from further allegations. "It was important to the principal to have her in the classroom," Vauchel says. "He said, 'Don't stay alone with the kids, because it will be very difficult to prove you are right.'"
But when the boys accused Vauchel of punching them, he says, he was asked to resign his position. "I asked for a hearing many times, and my lawyer asked, but they never gave me a hearing."
Mintz' contract was not renewed at ISL, and he is no longer employed at the school. The president of ISL's Board of Trustees, Maria Redmann Treffinger, declined comment for this article.
Vauchel says he can't explain why the boys told their parents he was violent toward them. "I don't exactly know what happens in the children's minds," he says. And, he adds, "these are the kinds of parents who say their kids never lie."
After 7-year-old Mason told Judge Blanchard that he sometimes made up stories, and 8-year-old Sebastien froze on the witness stand, Blanchard decided the case couldn't go on. He didn't call any other witnesses, including parents and a child who had come to speak in support of Vauchel. "The DA (then) tried to dismiss the case, and I objected," Rittenberg says. "The difference is that if you dismiss the case, you can bring him back up later on. Finding him not guilty -- that's acquittal."
Others who knew Vauchel say they were fully prepared to defend him in court. Marie-Francoise Crouch, a volunteer at ISL who has taught everyone from kindergartners to adults, says that "in my 41 years of teaching, I've never seen a teacher as experienced as Jean Phillipe Vauchel." She says his strict demeanor was probably misinterpreted by some parents.
"You have to be demanding in order for your child to produce, and parents have a hard time understanding that," Crouch says. Another volunteer at ISL, Sonia Cohen, echoes this praise of Vauchel. She objects to parents' accusations that Vauchel would keep his classroom closed off to outsiders. "The door of his class was always open."
But to Reese Johansen, the not-guilty verdict doesn't mean Vauchel didn't commit the crimes. She says the boys had been unable to provide proper testimony because Vauchel was present in the courtroom -- and the kids' parents were not. (As potential witnesses themselves, the parents weren't allowed to hear the children's testimony.) Johansen believes that the courtroom environment intimidated the 7- and 8-year-olds and adds that the one adult who could have shed light on what really happened in Vauchel's classroom -- assistant teacher Virginie Dufieux -- had moved back to France before the trial. Both sides claim Dufieux would have supported their version of events.
Johansen says her son was anxious about testifying. "He straddled the fence; he was nervous, but in the end he said he wanted to," she says. "He knew that if he talked, he could probably stop this teacher from teaching other kids." When Sebastien came out of the courtroom, he told her he'd been too scared to answer the judge's questions. "He was disappointed in himself," Johansen says. "He asked, 'Is Jean Phillipe going to be able to teach again?'"
Stacie LeBlanc, a former Jefferson Parish prosecutor who supervised a felony child abuse program, has prepared many children for the prospect of testifying against an accused abuser. Testifying in court "is an intimidating experience, even for an adult," says LeBlanc, now an attorney for the child abuse program at Children's Hospital of New Orleans. "Preparation is what it's all about."
LeBlanc says she would get children ready for their testimony by taking them to the courtroom, showing them where different people would be situated -- the judge, the jury, the defendant -- and going over the questions that would be asked. In extreme cases, including sexual abuse, child witnesses would sometimes give testimony in the judge's chambers or on videotape, away from the accused abuser. "It's not as threatening to the child" as it is to testify in front of the defendant, LeBlanc says. The Vauchel case was not considered extreme, and none of these options were offered to the children.
A child who isn't well-prepared for such an experience would very likely find it overwhelming, says LeBlanc. However, she believes that just participating in the court process is often helpful for young witnesses -- even when it doesn't lead to a guilty verdict. "Children whose cases were resolved with their participation, regardless of the outcome, tend to improve once the case is closed," LeBlanc says. "It's the closure aspect of it."
Johansen says that seeking closure was the main motivation behind her decision to allow Sebastien to testify. She also wanted him to learn the lesson "that you need to go through every avenue and every means possible to defend yourself."
"Of course I would have preferred for [Vauchel] to have been found guilty, but it's over with," Johansen says. "It's behind us, and the life lesson to my son has been taught." Johansen says she plans to return Sebastien to ISL next year and to become involved in a new parents' association at the school. Hebert, who could not comment for this story because she was undergoing surgery, has indicated she plans to pursue the case in civil court. She is enrolling Mason in a different school.
For Vauchel, the not-guilty verdict provided vindication -- but not resolution. He says he'd like to work in the United States again, but for now he's going to seek opportunities in France and try to "clean my reputation," he says. He returned to France on June 17.