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Hard Lessons 

A teacher at a local charter school stands accused of battery after parents complain that his disciplinary methods were too harsh for their first-grade children.

Looking back, Juleigh Hebert says she should have known something was wrong.

In late January, she says, her 7-year-old son Mason started complaining of stomachaches, with the school nurse calling regularly to tell Hebert to come get her child. The boy had begun waking up on school days with abdominal pains. Sometimes he'd start whimpering just as Hebert was pulling up to the International School of Louisiana (ISL), a fledgling foreign-language-based charter school where the first-grader attends its French immersion program. "He'd say, 'Mama, I can't go to school. My stomach hurts,'" Hebert recalls. "And I'd say 'Get out of the car, Mason. You're going.'"

For parent Reese Johanson, it was the air of secrecy surrounding Jean Phillipe Vauchel's first-grade classroom. "The thing that triggered me in the beginning was that I couldn't see into his classroom. He had papers covering the window and you couldn't peek in," Johanson says. "He was the only teacher who covered the window." Later, it became her son Sebastien's offhand comments that Vauchel, a French native, frequently called the kids "babies" and would tell them to "'stop crying or I'll send you back to kindergarten.'

"And I'm thinking, why are kids crying in his class?" Johanson says. "It's not preschool."

Over time, Johanson says, her son began to tell unsettling stories about Vauchel's disciplinary tactics, which allegedly included pushing, kicking, grabbing and yelling. Johanson says she complained to school director Ron Mintz at the beginning of the school year that Vauchel was tough and abusive. Mintz, she says, "told me he'd take care of it."

But Sebastien continued to report that Vauchel would lose his temper.

Johansen says that when she again confronted Mintz in December, he assured her that, in response to complaints he'd gotten from parents and from assistant teacher Virginie Dufieux, he had instructed Dufieux not to leave Vauchel alone in the classroom with the children.

"Ron said he didn't have another French teacher, and he didn't want to lose the teacher," Johanson says. "Ron promised that [Vauchel's] contract wasn't being renewed for next year. He said, 'Let's just get through the school year,'" she claims.

Vauchel did not return calls for comment. The president of ISL's board of trustees, Maria Redmann Treffinger, told Gambit Weekly that comment from anyone employed by the school, including Mintz and Dufieux, would come only through the board.

In January, Johanson says, her child was starting to act up at home -- bullying his little brother and withholding affection, Johanson says. "I started really grilling my son (about Vauchel) in January."

On Jan. 29, Johanson says she wrote a long letter to Mintz and the ISL board, detailing her son's accounts of Vauchel's behavior and asking for Vauchel's termination. Her letter also accused Vauchel of using "degrading" and "humiliating" tactics as a motivational tool.

"They brushed me aside, assured me it would be handled and promised me a meeting," Johanson recalls.

She says she finally got her meeting with Mintz more than a month later, on March 18. "I was told there have been too many questionable things happening in this man's classroom, and if there was another occurrence Jean Phillipe had been notified he would lose his job," Johanson claims. "Two days later, my son comes home and tells me that Jean Phillipe punched him."

Last month, Vauchel was arrested and charged with misdemeanor battery. He pleaded not guilty in Municipal Court and is scheduled to stand trial June 3.

The International School of Louisiana, founded by parents and certified by the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (BESE) in 2000, prides itself on providing challenging curricula in French or Spanish immersion. The tuition-free public charter school began with kindergarten in August 2000, and plans to add a new grade each year through twelfth grade. The school is striving to become accredited through the International Baccalaureate Organization, so that graduates not only receive a Louisiana high school degree, but an internationally recognized high school diploma that can provide up to two years of credit in an American university.

ISL shares space with the First United Methodist Church of New Orleans at the intersection of Canal Street and Jefferson Davis Parkway, but plans to move to another site within a few years to accommodate its burgeoning student body.

The school's board of trustees provided only brief comment for this story and would not answer specific questions. "The unfortunate matter involving a member of our faculty has been addressed by the school," the board wrote in a statement. "This faculty member is no longer working for ISL. Policies and procedures have been reviewed and are in place to guard against this type of concern."

In a 2002 BESE evaluation, ISL reported that 13 of its 16 teachers were certified in the areas they teach, exceeding state standards. Three are certified in Louisiana and 10 received certification in their countries of origin and were recognized as Louisiana certified, according to the report, which said some teachers were on educational visas from other countries. It was not clear whether Vauchel, who taught at ISL since its inception, was among them. ISL recruited its faculty with the help of the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana, the report said.

ISL is due to have a third-year evaluation May 13, a standard procedure in which a charter school evaluation team contracted by BESE will examine the strength of the school's finances, academics and fiscal accounting reports. If the school passes its review, its charter will be extended another two years.

Gary Wheat, BESE's charter schools administrator, said he had not heard of any incident involving Vauchel at ISL but would investigate.

"A single incident like this, depending on its severity, wouldn't necessarily have an impact on the school, especially if the management of the school has taken actions to rectify the situation," Wheat says. "It would be very concerning if there were a number of complaints about a teacher, especially at a K-to-2 school ... you're talking seriously defenseless kids.

"Unless it's a case of serious neglect on the part of the whole school administration, it shouldn't cause the school to close," Wheat says. "They are up for their third-year renewal, so it may be added to their list that the students be constantly in the supervision of competent and caring adults."

By all accounts, the school strives to provide excellent educational and cultural opportunities for its 200-plus students, nearly half of whom BESE classifies as "at-risk." Some parents who spoke with Gambit Weekly on condition of anonymity said they considered the Vauchel case to be atypical of the school as a whole.

"Jean Phillipe honestly taught Mason a tremendous amount of French," Juleigh Hebert says. "In all fairness, he's an excellent teacher. But you can't subject small children to his anger problems."

Both Hebert and Johanson cite the Louisiana Children's Code, a state law that requires "mandatory reporters," including school administrators, faculty and staff, to immediately report child abuse or suspected child abuse to the state Department of Social Services or to local law enforcement. NOPD ultimately was notified, but the call came from Johansen, not the school.

Unlike Johanson, Hebert only recently became aware of possible problems involving Vauchel. The incident in which the teacher allegedly punched Reese Johanson's child also involved her son Mason, Hebert says.

The boys told their mothers -- and a New Orleans Police Department detective, an NOPD spokesman says -- that during rehearsal for their class play The Lion King, the boys were horsing around. Vauchel allegedly lost his temper, "grabbed Mason and punched him in the back, and then grabbed Sebastien, screamed in his ear and punched him in the neck," Johanson wrote in an addendum to her Jan. 29 letter. "Then JP pushed Sebastien on to the floor."

Hebert says she learned of the alleged incident not from her child, but from Johanson. "Reese called me and said, 'Do you know that your son was punched?' She said 'I'm calling the police.'

"I said, 'Wait, wait. This is someone's career,'" Hebert recalls.

"So I called the school and I was told by [Mintz] that he didn't think that it was actually as severe as Reese had reported," Hebert says. "He said something untoward did occur, as it has in the past -- can you imagine telling me that? -- and he had already asked [Vauchel] to leave for the day, and that Mason was no worse for the wear."

Hebert went to the school to retrieve her son, and Johanson reported the alleged March 20 episode to police. Hebert says that a detective came to ISL a few days later to interview her son, but says that no one from the school notified her that a police officer was questioning the 7-year-old -- a notion that Hebert says horrifies her. "I was home ill from work when the detective called me and advised me that she had met with my son the previous day."

According to NOPD spokesman Capt. Marlon DeFillo, department policy allows a police officer to interview a minor on the scene of a crime, without a guardian being present. If the child is taken to a police station, DeFillo says, a legal guardian should be present during questioning.

The NOPD's Child Abuse Unit brought misdemeanor battery charges against Vauchel, DeFillo says. During his April 10 arraignment in Municipal Court, Vauchel was placed under a peace bond and ordered to stay away from the alleged victims. His trial is set for 8 a.m. on June 3 before Municipal Judge Bruce McConduit, according to court records.

"While regrettable, we believe this isolated incident will not impair the ability of the school to move forward with its mission of providing an academically challenging public education in a foreign language setting," the ISL board said in its statement.

In a March 28 letter, Mintz announced that Vauchel had resigned effective immediately, citing "personal circumstances."

That week, Hebert says, "bits and pieces kept coming to the forefront." During a subsequent parents' meeting, "my son decided to share with all these adults that Jean Phillipe had actually locked him in the girls' bathroom for an entire day, shutting the light off before locking him in there," Hebert says. "Virginie (Dufieux), the assistant, nodded her head in confirmation to that, as well as these other horrific stories about the child whose chair was kicked so hard that he fell out, striking his head.

"She nodded in agreement to that; she also nodded in agreement to the fact that she couldn't leave while he was there teaching. The children could not be left alone with him."

Hebert says that in recent weeks, she's talked in depth to her son about Vauchel. He told her the teacher's demeanor would change dramatically when adults came into the room, she says.

The child suffers anxiety and guilt over his role in his teacher's departure, Hebert says, and frets that other teachers in the school will punish him for it. Mason's anxiety grew when Vauchel allegedly showed up at ISL a few days after Mintz told the children their teacher wouldn't be back.

"He was standing behind the fence, and I don't know why he was there -- there should have been some sort of restraining order by the school as far as I'm concerned," says Hebert. "He told Mason he was a nice boy."

On the same day Mintz announced Vauchel's resignation, ISL board of trustees president Treffinger sent a school-wide letter informing parents that Mintz would stay on until the end of the school year, but that his contract would not be renewed.

Treffinger, an attorney with the state Department of Social Services, would not discuss the school's personnel issues except to say the board plans to replace Mintz in June with Dr. Tom Crosby, whose experience as a teacher and administrator included stints in schools in the United States and several other countries. In its statement to Gambit Weekly, board members call Crosby "a visionary leader with more than 25 years of experience in education."

In the wake of the Vauchel matter, Hebert and Johansen have criticized the board as well as Mintz for not interceding sooner. However, a school's board members typically do not get involved in day-to-day operations. Instead, their duties generally involve setting broad policies, ensuring the school's financial stability, and hiring a director or headmaster. The head of school then carries out the board's policies and supervises all day-to-day functions -- including hiring and firing teachers. Usually, a board's only recourse when things go wrong is to replace the head of school.

At an April 3 meeting with the board that parents had requested, Johanson distributed copies of her letter, detailing Vauchel's alleged behavior, to about 200 parents. She also blasted the board for what she called an inadequate response to her complaints. Treffinger, an attorney with the state Department of Social Services, told the parents that Mintz was not invited back because of his "refusal to participate in strategic planning," which she called an "insurmountable obstacle." She declined to say whether it had anything to do with Vauchel, saying the school could not discuss Vauchel's case because of the pending police investigation.

Some parents complained about poor contact with the board on other matters. "It's very clear," Treffinger acknowledged, "that communication is the number one issue."

The ISL board sent parents a letter inviting them to a meeting with a school counselor on April 22, during the week the school was on spring vacation, "to address concerns related to the reported events." A follow-up letter to Hebert said the parents of three children had attended the meeting and had agreed to have their children talk about "recent events and transitions" with the school's counselor. It extended the same offer to Hebert.

After the April 3 meeting with parents, the ISL board announced it would establish better interaction with them. Board members distributed their email addresses and phone numbers, and discussed ideas for a parent-teacher association. In a follow-up letter, the board referred to its recent struggles as "growing pains."

"We regret that the parents appear to have lost confidence and trust in the board but we are, as you can see, willing to work toward building more effective communication," the letter read. It also said board members had not been "fully aware of many of the issues and concerns you recently raised."

Even after entertaining thoughts of a lawsuit, Johanson plans to send Sebastien to second grade at ISL next year, saying she believes there's enough positive aspects of the school to give it another chance. The promise of increased parental influence is what ultimately convinces her. "Parents are starting to take charge more and demand more of a voice," she says.

Hebert says she is contemplating legal action, and after initially registering her son for another year at ISL, says she has changed her mind and won't be sending him back. "I don't think it's in Mason's best interest," she says.

click to enlarge Juleigh Hebert - DONN YOUNG
click to enlarge Jean Philipe Vauchel - School Photo Courtesy of Reese Johansen
  • Jean Philipe Vauchel
    School Photo Courtesy of Reese Johansen
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