Report details abuse at Tri-County Schools

  • WWLP

Staff Writer
Published: 8/2/2018 10:33:16 PM

EASTHAMPTON — An 8-year-old boy who suffered a broken finger, a 14-year-old boy who received cuts and abrasions to his side, arms and face and an 11-year-old boy who got scrapes and bruises on his side and back are among those allegedly injured at a school for special education students where a pattern of abuse and neglect was recently uncovered.

A report issued Thursday by the Disability Law Center stemmed from an investigation that substantiated claims of abuse and neglect at the Tri-County Schools, a private, special education day school, run by the Easthampton-based Northeast Center for Youth & Families. The school closed June 25, saying it was to allow for development of a new, 11-month school year.

The Disability Law Center is a private nonprofit mandated by Congress and designated by the governor of Massachusetts as the state’s protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities.

“The pattern and practice of forcibly restraining and containing — and then arresting — students for disability-related behavior at a special education school is extremely troubling,” Marlene Sallo, the law center’s executive director, said in a statement. “This treatment causes both physical harm and long-term psychological trauma.”

According to the 19-page report, written by attorney Colleen Shea and litigation director Stanley J. Eichner, staff members at Tri-County Schools engaged in abuse by repeatedly using excessive force in restraints, employed improper time-out and disciplinary practices, and neglected the students through a series of actions. These included regularly making calls to the Easthampton Police Department for incidents that didn’t require police action.

Shea said the report has been sent to the state’s Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which approves such special education schools, and is posted publicly on the law center’s website. The report was not forwarded to law enforcement agencies.

Paul Rilla, executive director of Northeast Center for Youth & Families, issued a statement noting that officials had already announced the school would close for the next year to prepare for a new educational model.

“Tri-County Schools made the decision in May 2018 that it would close its K through 12 educational programs, for the purpose of restructuring,” Rilla said. “Subsequently the Disability Law Center conducted an investigation based on complaints which they received. Tri-County cooperated fully with the investigation.”

Shea said when the school reopens, its operation will focus on a trauma-informed care model, which features a more clinically informed support structure for students. The Disability Law Center, she said, supported the decision to close for the year and have a reassessment of the operation before it reopens.

State’s concerns

The report confirms “significant concerns” about the school’s operations previously identified by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, observing some of the same concerns raised in a 2015 program review and corrective action plan.

“While it is useful information for us to have, it is not something we will take immediate action on, because the school closed in June,” state education department spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis said.

But if the school wants to reopen as an approved special education school serving students placed there by public school districts, it will need to reapply for approval, Reis said.

“We have continued to have concerns and have continued to work with the school over the past three years, doing unannounced site visits and meeting with school representatives,” Reis said. “We planned to do a mid-cycle review of the school in May, but learned they were closing.”

The school has had the capacity to serve up to 115 special education students, mostly children who struggle with social, emotional and behavioral manifestations of their disabilities. But just 39 students, mostly from communities across western Massachusetts, were attending, and only eight teachers were left by the end of the school year, Shea said.

Excessive force

The Disability Law Center received complaints from parents in late March and early April and began the investigation, with interviews starting in late May. The investigation included reviewing the records of three students, interviewing 19 parents and watching a restraint video. There were also reviews of records from local police and the Massachusetts Department of Children and Families, conducting a site visit and interviewing administrators at the Tri-County Schools

The 19-page report asserts that staff repeatedly utilized excessive force and ignored student distress during restraints, frequently misused exclusionary time-out as a place to discipline, sequestered unruly students for extended periods of time and engaged in improper disciplinary practices.

It outlines several incidents that led to injuries:

The 14-year-old boy was restrained seven times in a seven-week period. He was injured during four of these restraints, including accidentally being kneed on the left side of his face by a staff member and getting a variety of cuts and abrasions on his side, arms and face at other times.

Another student was pushed in the chest and grabbed by the back of the neck by a staff member, while another staff member placed a child in a headlock. Both staff members were terminated following the incidents.

The 8-year-old boy’s finger was broken during a behavioral incident in June. His mother told investigators that he was restrained almost daily and “came home with bruises on his arms and back almost every day due to holds.”

A parent of a high-school student said that his son was slammed into an HVAC unit outside the school and injured, and a second high school parent reported his son came home with a black eye from a restraint. Senior administrators reported that they were not made aware of the HVAC incident.

The 11-year-old boy was restrained daily as well and often came up with scrapes down his side, lower back and with bruising in the shape of finger prints, according to his father;

A former 19-year-old student at the school reported seeing “very rough” restraints, including one time when a classmate was repeatedly slammed into a locker by a staff member who was laughing and smiling.

In addition, the investigation revealed that students were neglected by the school which was not maintaining adequate numbers of trained staff, which resulted in “the over-criminalization of disability-related behavior and the failure to properly implement effective social/emotional services and supports.”

Charges brought

Police records showed staff calling the department 35 times between Sept. 5 and May 7, with 911 calls primarily for students leaving campus, or for unruly student behavior. These calls led to students being charged with 34 separate criminal or juvenile crimes for school-related incidents, most often disturbing school assembly and malicious destruction of property.

“In effect, TCS staff repeatedly called the police to intervene when its special education students with serious social/emotional and behavioral disabilities were dysregulated, disruptive and breaking things,” the report notes. “Local school districts referred these students to a specialized school for therapeutic intervention, but many instead left with an avoidable criminal or juvenile court record.”

Examples of neglect are cited, and the school also experienced high staff turnover during the 2017-18 school year, with a garden center teacher, auto teacher and physical education all departing.

Shea said because she doesn’t represent families, she doesn’t know whether any lawsuits may arise out of the report. In similar past cases, though, some families have sought legal representation, she said.

Cases such as what happened at Tri-County Schools are not unheard of.

“We do have them from time to time, but it’s not happening in every special education day school program,” Shea said.

The most recent case in western Massachusetts was in December 2015, when the Disbaility Law Center issued a report about alleged physical and psychological abuse suffered by students at the Peck School in Holyoke.

In that report, a disabled child was reportedly thrown to the floor and slapped by a staff member when refusing to move, and a student with disabilities was punched when he refused to put on restraints.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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