Clarke paying survivors of physical and sexual abuse 

  • Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Kim LaRocque, a former student at the Clarke School for the Deaf, seen here at age 9. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 4/25/2019 5:28:10 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech has begun paying out funds to survivors of physical and sexual abuse that took place decades ago at the well-known school for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.

The disbursement of checks comes almost a year after Clarke — previously known as the Clarke School for the Deaf — released a third-party investigation that found some former teachers and staff physically and sexually abused students. A subsequent Gazette investigation published in January detailed the accounts of 12 alumni who said they faced abuse during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s.

Many said they also faced “language deprivation” at Clarke under its philosophy of “oralism,” a pedagogy in deaf education that taught oral speech and lip-reading instead of sign language. 

Three alumni who spoke to the Gazette for its investigation said earlier this week in phone interviews — conducted through American Sign Language interpreters — that they received a $5,000 check from the school along with a letter from trustees Mary Ellen Nevins and Theodore Mason.  

“We, on behalf of the Board, sincerely apologize for any abuse you suffered while at Clarke and hope that the creation and distribution of monies from the fund will provide a measure of solace to you,” reads an April 13 letter accompanying one of the checks to an alumna. 

Clarke announced on Nov. 8 the creation of a “limited fund” to provide financial support for medical and mental health treatment for alumni who were victims of abuse. That announcement came eight days after the Gazette had contacted school leadership to set up an interview to discuss the allegations of abuse. When asked whether the fund was created in response to learning of the Gazette’s investigation, school administrators said that it was not.

“The purpose of the fund was to provide some financial support for medical and/or mental health treatment for individuals who experienced psychological and physical injuries from abuse while students at Clarke,” reads a statement Clarke sent to the Gazette on Wednesday.

One graduate of Clarke, Kim LaRocque, 58, said that she has “mixed feelings” about the money she received when she considers the abuse faced by other alumni. “I’m OK, because when I compare my abuse to theirs, mine was relatively small,” she said. “My feelings are a bit complicated. It’s hard to put.”

LaRocque added that, when distributing funds, the school didn’t specifically acknowledge the damage that she says oralism caused deaf students, who were barred from using sign language or even gesturing when she was in school. That philosophy deprived deaf students of their identities, she said, and delayed their language development.

In the statement, the school said that the funds sent to victims were taken exclusively from Clarke’s “modest and much-restricted endowment,” and not from the school’s operating budget. 

The school’s most recent publicly available tax filings from 2016 show an endowment of approximately $16 million. School spokeswoman Rachelle Ferrelli said that “a significant portion of the endowment is restricted,” and that “almost all of Clarke’s assets are restricted.”

The school’s board of trustees determined the size of the fund, but Clarke declined to disclose the figure when asked Thursday. The statement said that the school relied on a third-party claims administrator to manage claims and the disbursement of funds.

“Clarke’s Board of Trustees and employees at Clarke Schools for Hearing and Speech do not know the names of the applicants, which individuals received funds or the amounts of the funds disbursed to those individuals,” the statement says.

For one former student, the idea of applying for compensation was something she rejected out of principle.

“Clarke continues to speak for us deaf people about what is best for us, not letting us deaf people educate society or the system about what is best for us,” Sheila Griffin Grady, 61, said. 

Some others who received funds said the amount was not sufficient for the suffering they say they endured.

“For all the mental health and psychological health issues, $5,000 is just not enough,” said Class of ’57 graduate Richard McElwain, now 79. 

In a phone interview on Wednesday, he said he was also disappointed with Clarke’s short letter accompanying the check he received.

“The apology was just a joke,” McElwain said. 

Another graduate who received funds was Bernie Brown, 73. He said he was upset that the school’s apology made no mention of oralism or “language deprivation.” But equally upsetting, he said, was that it took the school so long to make those payments and apologies. Many alumni from that time have already died, he said. In addition to himself, Brown submitted claims on behalf of a few deceased alumni whom he said experienced abuse. Clarke, in a letter to Brown, said those applications were found to be ineligible for financial support.

“I think the school feels like it’s a closed issue,” Brown said, “and I am hoping that people who were on the receiving end of so many things feel like they’ve gotten some closure as well.”

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.

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