The trial of David Scibek, the Burlington Technical Center teacher accused of injuring a student in his classroom a year ago, ended in a mistrial late Wednesday night due to a deadlocked jury.
Declared just before 10 p.m., the mistrial marked an anticlimactic end to a day that began more than 12 hours earlier in Chittenden Superior Court, where testimony centered on Scibek’s alleged simple assault of a 16-year-old female student.
Scibek, a Colchester resident, is the former chief of the Malletts Bay Fire Department and is married to Nadine Scibek, chairwoman of the local selectboard, who attended the entire proceeding.
The incident involved Scibek punishing a student in his criminal justice class after she threw a piece of paper at a trash can across the classroom—a violation of Scibek’s class rules, to which he dedicates an entire PowerPoint each session. His attorney, Ernest Allen, described the class as a “baby police academy.”
Witnesses testified Scibek, a retired cop who spent 20 years on the Burlington police force, tried to initiate a pressure point technique on the girl, an exercise that’s part of his traditional class curriculum. On the stand, four other BTC students said Scibek commonly threatened push-ups as punishment, but none could recall any other time he followed through.
This time, he persisted. Walking over to the girl’s seat, Scibek again asked her to do push-ups in a manner he described as light hearted. “We’re laughing, we’re joking about it,” he testified.
Scibek told the court he saw an opportunity for a “teachable moment.” He told detectives he said, “Hey everyone, watch this,” then tried to initiate a pressure point behind the girl’s ear, cupping her head with his left hand and pressing against her. But he was unable to locate the pressure point, he said, because it was obstructed by the girl’s “afro-style” hair. He guessed his hands were on her for less than a second and said he never touched her throat.
“I think I briefly felt her ear,” he testified. “At that point, she lets out a little squeal and a giggle, slides out of her chair and sits on the floor.”
The girl testified she hit her back on a nearby computer cart. Scibek confirmed he did not ask the girl’s permission to touch her, explaining pressure points requires an element of surprise, and said the girl never said she was in any pain after the incident.
In their opening statements, prosecutors called the scenario a 16-year-old girl’s “nightmare.” They said her fall caused embarrassment and bodily injury; a physician’s assistant from the University of Vermont Medical Center testified she treated the girl for bruises on her neck and lower back.
Scibek said he performed the technique hundreds of times in his law enforcement career and more than a dozen times on students in his classroom. He said he’s covered the technique each of his 11 years at the technical center without incident. Rarely was pain ever an issue, he added, which made the girl’s reaction “confusing,” though he also acknowledged to detectives that the technique is considered a “pain compliance.”
According to his testimony, the girl landed on the floor, “flops over” in what he called a series of “very slow, methodical” movements and eventually got up and walked out of the classroom.
The girl, now 17, shared a much different version of events. She testified Scibek became upset when she refused to do the push-ups and said he dug his fingers into her neck for more than five seconds. She recalled “excruciating pain” and said when she tried to get up, he pressed her down into the push-up position.
“I was terrified,” she told jurors, saying her only thought was to “get out of the classroom.”
Scibek followed the girl into the hallway and stood in front of doors that lead to the high school. A short video taken by the girl’s friend shows some of the encounter after the girl’s fall: “Twenty push-ups,” Scibek is heard saying. He repeats it three more times in the seven-second clip.
The tech center’s hallway cameras also captured their interaction. Joan Seigel, a student services coordinator at BTC, pulled Scibek aside after she overheard him talking to the girl in the hallway. “Nothing physical,” she told him, or he could be forced to go before the school board.
The footage then shows Seigel walk away, and moments later, the girl performed the push-ups. “The floor was clean,” Scibek testified, adding that girl’s form was “excellent.”
On the stand, Scibek was both complimentary and critical of the girl. He called her “smart” and “charming” and said she often visited his office before class. “I worked very hard to make sure we got along,” he said. But he said she’d become increasingly disruptive and argumentative.
The girl told jurors she enrolled at BTC with hopes of one day becoming a forensic scientist or detective. She’s since dropped out of the program, but said Scibek’s class was her favorite and reported having had a great relationship with the teacher—a statement confirmed by several classmates who testified.
But she said the day before the incident Scibek refused to help her on a project about racial profiling, a topic the two had disagreed about before. According to prosecutors, she was one of only two students of color in the class.
Allen, Scibek’s attorney, said testimony from the girl’s classmates discounted her description of the incident, noting none of the students recalled seeing Scibek grab the girl’s neck. Even the state seemed skeptical of her narrative, Allen said, referring to how prosecutors didn’t claim Scibek threw the girl to the ground, as she said in her testimony.
“The state doesn’t believe her story,” Allen said.
Deputy state’s attorney Franklin Paulino asked jurors to focus on the defendant’s own testimony. “He knew what he was doing. He knew what it would do. And that’s exactly why he did it,” Paulino said.
To reach a guilty verdict, the six-man, six-woman jury needed to agree on three elements of a simple assault: That Scibek committed the act, that it caused the girl injury and that he acted recklessly. Jurors deliberated for nearly five hours, returning to the court twice: once to re-listen to audio from Scibek’s interview with detectives and once to inform the judge they were split on one of the three elements.
Finally, at around 9:45 p.m., the jury’s foreman said they didn’t expect any progress on their deadlock, prompting Judge Martin Maley to declare a mistrial.
The state’s attorney’s office can seek a new trial if it wishes. Prosecutors entered a room with the alleged victim’s family after the decision and were not immediately available for comment.
Scibek declined to comment on the result with “so much up in the air still.” Riding in the court elevator, he said he was just glad his side of the story was out.