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'Breakdown' cited at Cutchins Programs in Northampton

  • Cutchins Programs for Children and Families at 78 Pomeroy Terrace in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Cutchins Programs for Children & Families at 78 Pomeroy Terrace in Northampton.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • Cutchins Programs for Children & Families at 78 Pomeroy Terrace in Northampton. This building is at 72 Pomeroy Terrace.<br/>KEVIN GUTTING
  • GORDON DANIELS<br/>Jay Indik, program director, Cutchins Programs for Children and Families Inc.
  • Cutchins Programs for Children & Families at 78 Pomeroy Terrace in Northampton.<br/><br/><br/><br/>GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

A review of the program’s own internal investigation by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found shortcomings in Cutchins’ procedures to ensure adequate supervision of students at its New Directions School on Pomeroy Terrace. The agency also determined that crisis communications procedures were not properly understood or followed by staff after the alleged assault occurred, according to a Gazette review of state records.

Staff were disciplined internally over the matter and the program has since provided a detailed corrective action plan, which outlines policy changes it has made to ensure the health and safety of its students. The state agency has approved the new policies and will follow up with the program during a review in November.

“I told our staff that this is a wake-up call,” said Jay Indik, executive director of the Cutchins Programs for Children & Families, this week. “This is a very scary thing that happened. They (state regulators) need to know we are prioritizing safety, which we are, and having a system in place that guarantees situations like this can’t happen again.”

The state review was prompted by a July 19 incident in which a 9-year-old girl was in a field behind the school complex as her fellow schoolmates moved from classroom activities to lunch. The girl, who had a jump rope, was being overseen by a substitute aide and was left unsupervised for a brief period of time that administrators earlier said was as long as 15 minutes.

It was during that unsupervised period that Lance M. Gouvan, 34, and Megan R. Bonny, 26, emerged from a wooded area and allegedly accosted the girl, who was physically unharmed, according to those familiar with the incident.

A short time later police arrested Gouvan and Bonny, who at the time were living in the woods not far from the school. They face charges of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (rope) and two counts of assault and battery in connection with the incident. Attempted murder and kidnapping charges against the pair were dropped earlier this month after a grand jury determined they were not supported by the evidence.

The Cutchins Programs for Children & Families operates residential and school programs for 30 children ages 8 to 19 with emotional and behavioral difficulties in Northampton.

Indik described the chain of events that led to the alleged assault as a “random, hard-to-anticipate” situation occurring during a brief window of time. The program’s campus is next to College Church, which has been a refuge for the area’s homeless and borders a wooded area where homeless people have pitched tents for years.

“Bad things can happen in Northampton to a degree that was not as much in the consciousness of the staff,” Indik said of the July 19 incident. “Our staff in general does an excellent job in supervising the kids. Fortunately, she is safe and OK.”

The girl is no longer enrolled in the New Directions School, but is still receiving services through Cutchins, according to program administrators.

As part of its corrective action plan, Cutchins revised policies on supervision and communication with regard to time-outs for children, including a protocol for signing students out of buildings. It also overhauled another communication policy that requires the use of cellphones and, as a backup, walkie-talkies when students are being supervised outside school buildings. In August the New Directions School purchased three walkie-talkies with a 23-mile range that will be available when staff do not have cellphones.

State regulators determined that the school also failed to immediately notify the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education that a serious incident involving a student had occurred. State education officials did not learn of the July 19 incident until a day later when a state worker contacted Indik to inquire about it. The state received a written notice about the incident from Cutchins on July 23.

As part of its internal review, Cutchins held its education coordinator at the New Directions School responsible for the lapse in communication. According to the review, the coordinator did not convey reporting requirements to other staff before he left for vacation, the period during which the incident occurred, records show.

“This is an unacceptable occurrence that highlighted the communication issues that contributed to the severity of this incident,” Justin W. Smith, education coordinator of the New Directions School, wrote to state education officials in September.

“This incident highlighted the gaps in the communication model that was present in the New Directions School,” Smith’s report continues. “That communication breakdown occurred both at the direct care level and within the administration.”

Cutchins’ report to the state indicates that Indik believed he had 24 hours to report the incident. In a phone interview this week, he said that in the immediate aftermath of the alleged assault he was occupied with checking on the well-being of the student involved, and contacting her family and law enforcement.

As part of its new policies, Cutchins has established a succession order among administrative staff members responsible for notifying the state of incidents that require immediate reporting.

In a letter to the state, Smith, the education coordinator, said the incident was a “call to action” for New Directions School to enforce policies and procedures that had not been appropriately followed by staff and to create emergency protocols to address the state agency’s concerns.

The Cutchins program, which also works with the state Department of Children and Families and Department of Mental Health, is working with those agencies to address their concerns, according to Benjamin A. Barnes, president of the board of directors at the Cutchins Programs for Children & Families. The board is expected to review the program’s new policies and procedures at its next meeting, he said.

“I’m satisfied that we’ve responded adequately and we’ve made appropriate changes,” said Barnes, a Northampton attorney.

He said Cutchins staff members have a heightened awareness that the area at the rear of its property has potential dangers. He said the agency also is cooperating fully with the Northwestern district attorney’s office as it pursues criminal charges against Gouvan and Bonny.

Dan Crowley can be reached at dcrowley@gazettenet.com.

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