Editorial: Tri-County Schools report disturbing

Published: 8/10/2018 10:09:38 PM

A disturbing report describing alleged abuse of special-education students at Tri-County Schools in Easthampton raises questions about whether the private school should be allowed to reopen.

The Disability Law Center, of Boston, issued a 19-page report Aug. 2 concluding that staff repeatedly used excessive force against students in restraints, imposed improper time-out and disciplinary practices and neglected students in a variety of ways, including regularly calling the Easthampton Police Department for incidents that did not require police action.

“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,” said Marlene Sallo, executive director of the private, nonprofit center that is responsible for providing protection and advocacy for the rights of Massachusetts residents with disabilities. “This treatment causes both physical harm and long-term psychological trauma.”

Tri-County Schools was licensed by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education to serve up to 115 special education students with social, emotional and behavioral problems. It is primarily funded by public school districts which pay the tuition of students they send.

There were 39 students, mostly from communities in western Massachusetts, and eight teachers at Tri-County Schools when it closed June 25 until a “new 11-month school year proposal was approved by the state.”

We are disappointed at the lack of public communication about the school’s troubles by Paul Rilla, executive director of its parent agency, the Northeast Center for Youth and Families, which was founded in 1972 to serve children and families “as they navigate the challenges of a child’s emotional and behavioral difficulties.”

The school’s closing was announced in a May 29 press release that did not mention parents’ complaints to the Disability Law Center in March and April that triggered the investigation. When the press release was issued, Rilla declined further comment.

After the law center’s report was made public last week, Rilla issued a statement with no reference to the students who were allegedly injured at the school, or whether the school planned to discipline any staff members found responsible for abuse.

“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 in the statement. “Subsequently the Disability Law Center conducted an investigation based on complaints which they received. Tri-County cooperated fully with the investigation.”

Among the findings in the report:

A 14-year-old boy was restrained seven times in seven weeks and suffered injuries during four of those instances. He was kneed in the head and cut and scraped on his side, arms and face.

An 11-year-old boy was restrained daily, scraped on his side and lower back and had bruises in the shape of fingerprints, according to his father.

An 8-year-old boy’s finger was broken in June, and his mother told investigators that he was restrained nearly every day and “came home with bruises on his arms and back almost every day due to holds.”

In addition, school staff called the Easthampton Police Department 35 times between Sept. 5 and May 7, usually reporting unruly student behavior or youths leaving school grounds. That resulted in 34 charges against students. According to the Disability Law Center, that was unnecessary: “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.”

The Disability Law Center confirms “significant concerns” raised by a 2015 review of Tri-County Schools by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. “We have continued to have concerns and have continued to work with the school over the past three years,” said Jacqueline Reis, a spokeswoman for the state education department.

Because of this troubling pattern of alleged abusive behavior against students, we question whether the state should approve the school’s reopening. If it does, we hope there is continued oversight — perhaps by an outside agency such as the Disability Law Center — to ensure that staff are properly trained and adhere to professional standards in disciplining troubled students.

Furthermore, we urge the Northwestern district attorney’s office to review the Disability Law Center report to determine if criminal charges should be brought against any staff members responsible for injuring students.

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