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Editorial: A school corrects course

Cutchins Programs for Children and Families at 78 Pomeroy Terrace in Northampton.

Cutchins Programs for Children and Families at 78 Pomeroy Terrace in Northampton. KEVIN GUTTING Purchase photo reprints »

The Cutchins Programs for Children & Families sits on a rise along Pomeroy Terrace in Northampton not far from where the Meadows stretch out to the Connecticut River. It is a bucolic setting. But an incident July 19 has reminded educators there that, in the words of their executive director, “bad things can happen in Northampton to a degree that was not as much in the consciousness of staff.”

Because parents entrust their children’s care to the schools they attend, these institutions must meet high standards of safety and security. The New Directions School run by Cutchins failed a test in July when a 9-year-old girl was left unsupervised outside for as long as 15 minutes and ended up in a bizarre encounter with two adults who came onto the property.

Though initial charges of attempted murder against the pair were dropped, they remain accused of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, a jump rope. The child was not seriously injured.

A judge will hear the case against the defendants later in court. But the school’s conduct was swiftly examined by the state and the program itself. Gazette reporter Dan Crowley obtained copies of a report from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, one of which is available with this editorial online at GazetteNET.com. The department concluded that the gaps in coverage that resulted in failed supervision of the child amount to a “serious breakdown” in policies and communication by program staff.

Jay Indik, Cutchins’ executive director, says he has used the state’s tough report to rally staff to improve supervision and coverage. The goal he outlined — and it’s the right one — is to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again.

We respect Indik’s openness in responding to the July 19 incident and his apparent willingness to identify areas in need of improvement. That forward-thinking attitude should enable him to restore public confidence in this important program for children with emotional and behavioral problems. Today, roughly 30 young people aged 8 to 19 participate in residential and day programs there.

The child at the center of the July incident remains involved with Cutchins Programs but is no longer attending the New Directions School.

According to correspondence between the state and the program, a key problem arose from the fact that more than two-thirds of the staff present on the day of the incident were not regular employees. As it looked into the facts of the case, the state found that the high number of substitutes in use resulted in inadequate training and oversight. Another problem: Confusion over who at the school was there as a substitute teacher and who was there as an aide.

The fixes Cutchins has adopted concern back-up supervision and making staff more aware of policies, including things as simple as mandatory sign-out sheets.

The program has revised its stance on communication as well and has deployed a new set of walkie-talkies to augment use of cellphones.

The state also faulted the program for failing to report the incident immediately. In its own review of what happened, the program determined that a supervisor went on vacation without making clear how staff should handle mandatory reporting. A new policy calls for Cutchins’ staff to identify a clear line of command and responsibility for alerting the state when something unexpected happens involving a student.

All signs point to this vital institution taking the right lessons from an unfortunate incident.

It is a shame to think that a school’s backyard can hold such hazards. But that is just the way things are.

ESE Final Approval Cutchins Corrective Action 9-24-2012

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