WCS janitor charged with stalking student

Croteau had been previously 'disciplined' by school

April 3, 2008

By Marianne Apfelbaum

Observer staff

A longtime Williston Central School janitor has been charged with aggravated stalking of a 13-year-old, female student. Before he was arrested on Monday, the school went into a modified lockdown mode in what police called a "precautionary measure."

Norman Croteau Sr., 47, of South Burlington was arrested April 7 after an investigation that began on April 3 when school officials called police.

A student told a school counselor on April 2 that Croteau, "was always following her and had been saying some very inappropriate things to her," according to a police affidavit. School principal Jackie Parks told police "she was aware of previous incidents with girls reporting Croteau staring," and he had been "formally disciplined for these actions" in the previous school year, the affidavit states.

Williston School District Principal Walter Nardelli refused to discuss why the police were not notified at that time, calling the matter a personnel issue. Though Nardelli declined to discuss the specifics of Croteau's case, he said disciplinary measures may include a letter in an employee's file, but a lot depends on the specifics of the incident, the employee's "attitude toward the situation" and his work history.

Parks told police she "was taking the allegations very seriously as (the girl) was a very good student and is found to be very creditable with all the teachers and staff members that interact with her," the affidavit notes.

Attempts by the Observer to reach Croteau and his attorney were unsuccessful, but according to the police affidavit, the janitor told police he had "no interest in (the girl) and that the statements that (the girl) had made are not true."

The school placed Croteau on "paid administrative leave," pending the outcome of its own investigation and the court's findings in the case, according to Nardelli.

Croteau has been employed at the school since June 1997, according to Cid Gause, an administrative assistant at WCS. Nardelli said a background check on Croteau was never done because mandatory checks were not required until shortly after he had been hired.

Police Chief Jim Dimmick told the Observer Croteau has no criminal history.

The allegations

On April 4, police interviewed the girl who brought the complaints against Croteau and her parents at their home. The girl told police that on March 31, she went into the girls' bathroom at the school; shortly thereafter someone knocked on the door and asked if anyone was inside. She loudly said, "Yes," but Croteau "entered the bathroom anyway," according to the police affidavit.

Croteau told the girl he was "looking for a big mess," looked around and left the bathroom, the affidavit states. Croteau then allegedly entered the bathroom again in the same manner, saying he "could not find the mess." The girl went to wash her hands at the sink furthest away from him, and Croteau said he had found the mess on a toilet seat; "instead of taking paper towels from the dispenser that was right next to him," he walked across the bathroom and took them from the dispenser right next to the girl, according to the affidavit.

The girl told police she was so scared she "left the bathroom without washing the soap off her hands and without getting her backpack and other belongings." She told police she waited until Croteau had left before retrieving her things.

In a second incident on March 31, the girl told police, she was in a hallway by herself when Croteau came near her and "made it look like" he was changing a trash bag. The girl told police the janitor then said, "There's a room upstairs if you want to go." The girl headed for the library, where she was afraid to leave because he may have been waiting for her, according to the affidavit.

A third time on the same day, according to the affidavit, the girl said Croteau was in the library "staring at her."

The behavior allegedly continued the next day.

On April 1, the girl told police, she "altered her route" in school to avoid the boiler room where Croteau might be, and instead walked past the school office. But Croteau saw her and started following her, according to the affidavit. The girl found other students in the hallway, and one of them told the girl, "I think this guy is watching us," the affidavit states. When the other students left, the girl again altered her route to avoid Croteau, the affidavit notes.

In another incident on April 1, the girl said she saw Croteau by the gym doors and he "moved his head in a gesturing motion," as if trying to lure her into the gym, according to the affidavit. She walked past him and he began to follow her, so she walked "faster and faster" to get to the library, according to the affidavit.

At about 11:45 a.m. the same day, the girl told police, she was walking down a hallway and saw Croteau following her. He caught up with her and said, "Hi" in a low voice, then, "Oh, shoot," when a woman walked around the corner, the affidavit states.

While the girl was walking with another student, again on April 1, Croteau allegedly came up to them and said, "Don't tell anyone. I don't want to get fired," according to the affidavit.

Three more incidents allegedly followed on April 2: According to the affidavit, Croteau "put his arms around himself in a hugging motion" and "used his pointer finger to motion (the girl) over to him;" the janitor approached the girl as she was heading to lunch and said, "I have my cell phone number if you want it;" and, while in the cafeteria, Croteau took his cell phone and pointed it at the girl and her friends and it "looked like he was taking a picture." At that point, the girl and her friends went to report the behavior to the school counselor, according to police.

During the police interview at her home, the girl told officers that Croteau had been staring at her and following her for about a year, according to the affidavit. She also told police she doesn't feel safe in school and has had to alter her everyday activities to avoid contact with him.

In a separate interview included in the affidavit, another student told police Croteau "follows and looks at girls a lot," and makes her "feel very uncomfortable."

School lockdown

Police went to Croteau's home on April 7, but he was not there, said Chief Dimmick. A family member was there, and the police decided to enact a modified lockdown at the school in case the family member notified Croteau, who was unaware at that point that a police investigation was under way, Dimmick said.

Parents were notified via e-mail that a lockdown was enacted, but no details were provided. Based on questions from parents, the Williston Police Department posted more information on its Web site, www.willistonpd.com.

"Mr. Croteau made no direct threat on the school or any student, but the Police Department did not want him just showing up without notice with this emotionally charged issue under investigation," says a statement on the Web site. "We felt at a minimum, we owed it to the 13-year-old student who came forward to ensure that there was not a chance encounter in a hallway or public area in the building. Mr. Croteau had been placed on leave by the school last week, and asked not to go to the school, but he still had keys to the building."

The school has discussed changing the locks on the doors "as part of the budget process," but has no immediate plans to do so, Nardelli said.

Contrary to rumors, police say Croteau was never at the school on Monday.

The charge

Croteau agreed to meet with police on April 7 at the police station, where he denied the allegations from the student. After questioning on Monday, police arrested Croteau and he was transported to Chittenden County Correctional Center, where he was held on $10,000 bail, according to Dimmick. He was released after his arraignment on Tuesday, Dimmick said, and is scheduled to appear in court in May.

Because the alleged victim was under 16, the stalking charge against Croteau was elevated to "aggravated" stalking. If convicted, Croteau faces up to five years in prison and/or a fine of up to $25,000, according to police.

The school is short on janitors: Nardelli said at least one or two are out with work-related injuries, in addition to Croteau's absence.

"If we could find a replacement as a sub (for Croteau), we would," Nardelli said.

He would not comment when asked if he would re-instate Croteau if the janitor is acquitted of the charges.