Ex-Roswell teacher charged with rape had 20-year record of ethics problems

Credit: Fulton County Sheriff's Office

Credit: Fulton County Sheriff's Office

Canton man was given access to classrooms despite history of sexually harassing students, records show

NOTE TO READERS: This article contains graphic, disturbing content.

Before he was accused of raping a Fulton County middle schooler, and well before fresh charges of sexual battery emerged last week, there were already significant red flags about Robert Allen Vandel’s integrity as an educator.

The former science teacher from Canton had survived multiple investigations, professional sanctions and a slate of criminal charges over his two-decade career. His teaching record, obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution through a series of open records requests, shows a laundry list of troubling behavior, flagged by teachers and administrators at various public and charter schools across Georgia.

Over the years, multiple students came forward and said Vandel regularly touched them inappropriately, smacked them on the buttocks with a ruler, and often engaged them in private conversations that were sexually suggestive, his record shows. To some who reported it, Vandel’s behavior was simply unprofessional. Others saw it as grounds for termination, and students at one school even pressed charges.

None of that prevented him from job-hopping, eventually landing at Fulton Academy of Science and Technology (FAST), a public Fulton County charter school in Roswell. It was there that in the spring of 2020 one of Vandel’s seventh grade students said she was raped by the 62-year-old teacher in his locked classroom during recess, according to an arrest warrant.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Vandel, now 64, has pleaded not guilty to the rape charge and other related offenses and is awaiting trial while still behind bars.

Another student at Lyndon Academy in Holly Springs, a private school that hired Vandel after he was fired from FAST but before the rape allegation came to light, has accused the former educator of sexual battery.

Explore‘There are more victims,’ GBI says after ex-teacher charged with sexual assault

The GBI has said there could be victims in as many as six other cities across the state, places where Vandel has taught since 1999. While the agency is still asking potential victims to come forward, a GBI spokesperson confirmed Monday they were unaware of any other active cases against Vandel in Georgia.

Calls and emails to Vandel’s defense attorney, Brian Steel, went unanswered Friday.

Suspension, but no criminal conviction

By the time he was hired at FAST in the fall of 2017, Vandel had been formally reprimanded by the Georgia Professional Standards Commission and his teaching license had been suspended twice, including suspension from 2006 to 2008 for alleged repeated sexual harassment of students at Midland Middle School in Columbus.

When applying at FAST, Vandel disclosed the two-year suspension but did not provide details, his personnel file shows. Noted prominently, however, was Vandel’s award for teacher of the year at Midland.

In 2003, Vandel was 46 years old and several years into his tenure at Midland, his second teaching job after leaving the U.S. Army. He was reported to the state certification commission that year for behavior that was ”at minimum, overly familiar and inappropriate in the context of a teacher-student relationship.”

Students told a state investigator Vandel would stand behind them in class, massaging their shoulders as they spoke. On multiple occasions, students said Vandel straddled their legs and rubbed their inner thighs when they went to his desk to ask questions, according to the investigative findings.

One student said she was hit on the buttocks with a ruler when she bent over in class. The case findings also detail multiple conversations with students, suggesting special presents and meetups over winter break at Vandel’s home.

Vandel resigned and was charged with four counts of sexual battery and a single count of simple battery, but the criminal case eventually stalled in 2004. He was never tried or convicted, according to state records.

At a hearing in 2006, an administrative court judge found the students’ testimonies credible and Vandel’s teaching license was suspended, despite the commission’s recommendation it be revoked. A suspension meant he could not be hired at another public school until 2008, but the lack of a conviction meant a clean criminal record.

That worked in Vandel’s favor in 2016, when he was granted a clearance certificate from the commission before taking jobs at public charter schools in metro Atlanta. The document, obtained by the AJC, said Vandel passed fingerprint and background check requirements and specified that his teaching certificate was in good standing. It did not list the prior ethics infractions.

Fired in Roswell, hired in Holly Springs

Other than the two-year suspension, Vandel did not disclose any other violations on his application to FAST, his personnel file shows. That includes a 10-day suspension at Cherokee Charter Academy in 2017 after allegedly showing up to an event with alcohol on his breath. He was fired from that school, according to state records, but he told FAST he left because he “desired a better position.”

In a statement, a spokesperson for FAST said the school prioritizes the safety of its students and staff, and it follows the mandated requirements for background checks for all employees and board members.

“Additionally, we have policies and procedures in place to protect all students and staff members,” said Joseph Akpan, who chairs the charter school’s board. “Nonetheless, we continue to evaluate our hiring policies, processes and procedure to ensure that we look for opportunities to strengthen our due diligence in this area.”

FAST said it fired Vandel in the summer of 2020 after an IT staffer found a series of messages sent to three eighth grade girls on his school account. The school hired a private investigator, who found “some disturbing patterns” of behavior but did not uncover anything about the alleged rape, his personnel file shows.

According to the case findings, one student received 80 messages from Vandel within a 10-day period, of which only seven were related to schoolwork. While none of the messages were sexual in nature, that student also said Vandel called her over video, and after asking to see her bedroom where she studied, asked her to show him her neck.

“When she turned the telephone towards her neck, Mr. Vandel told (the student) that if he were there he would put a hickey on that neck,” James Wilson, the CEO of the investigative group hired by FAST, said in a letter to school administrators.

FAST reported their findings to the state certification commission and to the Division of Family and Children Services, records show. Only the commission appeared to take any action, and Vandel voluntarily surrendered his teaching certificate in September 2020. He was already teaching at Lyndon Academy in Holly Springs when the revocation went into effect.

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Credit: Channel 2 Action News

Charges in the Holly Springs case were filed Feb. 18. A 13-year-old Lyndon Academy student has accused Vandel of hitting her on the buttocks with a ruler and rubbing himself against her while she bent over a desk in class, according to an arrest warrant.

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Before being hired at the private school, just like at FAST, Vandel passed all of his criminal background checks, Lyndon’s headmaster said in an exclusive interview with Channel 2 Action News. But his ethics history was considered public record, readily available to any and all who requested it from the state certification commission.

It would have also been flagged on a search of the National Association of State Directors of Teacher Education and Certification (NASDTEC) database, a national clearinghouse where all 50 states report public school teachers’ certification histories.

“Just because a private school is not a member of NASDTEC and doesn’t require certification doesn’t mean they can’t get the information from the Professional Standards Commission,” said John Grant, a former chief investigator for the commission who now works as a consultant. “All this information is out there. It’s available.”

The rape investigation

The Roswell police case wasn’t opened until August 2021, and only after the 15-year-old girl disclosed the alleged rape to her mother.

During a forensic interview, the girl said she was called into Vandel’s classroom during recess one day during February or March of 2020. She said Vandel sat her down, locked the door and pulled down the blinds used in intruder drills, according to his arrest warrant.

The teacher removed her school uniform before she was raped, the girl told forensic investigators.

“When he stopped, he gave her a white in color kitchen rag to clean the blood off of herself,” a Roswell detective said in the warrant. “He said, ‘Sorry,’ kissed her on the forehead, and gave her a Klondike bar ice cream. She stated that she then left the room crying.”

While building their case, Roswell police spoke with multiple students and teachers who felt something was “odd” about Vandel’s relationships with his students, the warrant shows. At least two girls told police that Vandel massaged their shoulders in class and his hands would slip toward their breasts.

At one point, an interim school administrator moved Vandel’s classroom from a trailer into the main building because she was concerned about visits with girls, according to the warrant. Vandel was known to keep roaches, lizards and a hedgehog in the classroom “to encourage children to come spend time with him when they were not in class.”

The FAST spokesperson did not directly respond to questions about the administrator’s concerns or Roswell’s rape investigation.

“Given this is still an active investigation and out of consideration for the alleged victim and the family, it would not be appropriate for us to comment further on this unfortunate situation,” Akpan’s statement said, in part. “Over the last several months we have fully cooperated with the investigation and will, of course, continue to do so.”

A trial date in the rape case has not been set. Vandel, who is being held without bond in the Fulton County Jail, has yet to enter a plea in the sexual battery case out of Holly Springs.

— Audience specialist Mandi Albright contributed to this article.

Timeline: Robert Vandel’s career

  • 1998

    Vandel's first job in teaching takes him to Opelika, Alabama, where he taught in the Lee County School District.

  • 2003

    Fired from Midland Middle School in Columbus after an investigation into inappropriate relationships with students, which results in criminal charges. During his time in Columbus, Vandel also taught one year at Rose Hill Alternative School.

  • 2004

    Vandel serves as a graduate assistant in a biology lab to undergraduate students at Columbus State University.

  • 2005

    Vandel moves to Phenix City, Alabama, to teach in the Russell County School District.

  • 2005-06

    Taught middle school to seventh graders and co-coached the girls' softball team at Coastal Middle School in Savannah. He resigns after his teaching certificate is suspended.

  • 2008

    When the suspension is up, Vandel gets a job at Notre Dame Academy in Savannah teaching middle school math.

  • 2009-10

    Serves as a long-term substitute for the St. John the Evangelist School in Hapeville, where he also coached the track team.

  • 2010-15

    Vandel works as an educational consultant to develop school improvement programs.

  • 2016

    Vandel gets a job at Cherokee Charter Academy in Canton but is fired in 2017 after he allegedly showed up to a school function inebriated, resulting in a 10-day suspension of his teaching certificate.

  • 2017

    Hired at Fulton Academy of Science and Technology in Roswell.

  • June 6, 2020

    Fired by FAST after an investigation headed by the principal and an outside investigator. At the close of that investigation, the matter was reported to DFCS, but no action was taken. The principal also reported the ethics violation to the Georgia PSC, and a case was opened.

  • Aug. 2020

    Vandel begins teaching at Lyndon Academy at Holly Springs.

  • Sept. 21, 2020

    Vandel surrenders his teaching certificate. The surrender is filed with the Ga. PSC on Oct. 8, 2020, and becomes effective.

  • Sept. 2, 2021

    Vandel is arrested by Roswell Police Department on rape and other charges related to a 2020 incident at FAST.

  • October 2021

    The GBI says “there could be more victims” in Holly Springs, Canton, Woodstock, Valdosta, Duluth, Savannah and Midland, as well as Opelika, Alabama.

  • Feb. 18, 2022

    Holly Springs police announce sexual battery charges against Vandel and alleges crimes happened between Jan. 4, 2021, and June 1, 2021.