Tri-County Schools shutters in Easthampton

  • Paul Rilla, executive director of the Northeast Center For Youth and Families, in his Easthampton office. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Tri-County Schools at 203 East St. in Easthampton.  STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Paul Rilla, executive director of the Northeast Center For Youth and Families, in his Easthampton office. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 5/24/2019 7:46:44 PM

EASTHAMPTON — When Tri-County Schools announced last June it would be closing to develop a new school plan to submit to the state, school officials said they were optimistic it would reopen.

A year later, the school has submitted no applications to the state and instead late last summer quietly decided to close for good. The decision also came in the wake of a report detailing allegations of abuse and neglect of students.

“We did close. And we closed, closed — we don’t plan on reopening,” said Paul Rilla, executive director of the Northeast Center for Youth and Families, the nonprofit that ran the school, in an interview on Wednesday.

Rilla said the decision to permanently close is tied to low enrollment and not the result of the allegations of abuse and neglect of students at the school located at 203 East St. in Easthampton. The allegations were detailed in a report last August from the Disability Law Center sparked by complaints to the agency.

Tri-County Schools opened three decades ago and was a state licensed, private school serving special education students. It was funded largely by sending tuition paid by public school districts. It served emotionally disturbed and students with special needs, ages 6 to 22, from around New England who are not succeeding in traditional schools.

Last June, the school announced it would close for a “new 11-month school year proposal.” Rilla said at the time that officials anticipated the school would reopen as soon its new application won approval from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

An 11-month plan, Rilla recently explained, means that the school wanted to apply to operate on an 11-month basis, which would have required school in the summer for all students.

Abuse, neglect complaints

Then in August, the Disability Law Center — 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 — released a 19-page report detailing problems in the school that stemmed from parent complaints in March and April.

In interviews with 19 parents and a review of some student records, the report found 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, as the Gazette previously reported. It also found staffing in the school was inadequate.

The report flagged several injuries, including an 8-year-old boy breaking his finger in a behavioral incident and students coming home with black eyes, cuts and bruises.

One 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, according to the report. Both staff members were fired following the incidents.

The school also called the police 35 times between Sept. 5, 2017 and May 7, 2018, mostly for students leaving school or disorderly behavior, leaving many with “an avoidable criminal or juvenile court record,” the report said.

“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, wrote in a statement last year.

Sallo recently said the school was supposed to submit a “detailed remedial plan” to the law center, but that she has not received one.

Rilla disputed the law center’s findings.

“I think a lot of that was exaggerated … I never thought the kids were unsafe here,” he said.

He said when the school first opened, “our niche was emotional issues, psychiatric kinds of issues,” but that the school started getting more students with “conduct disorder issues.”

“That became a whole different challenge to manage,” he said.

Efforts to reach former staff members and students and their families were unsuccessful.

Red flag during state visits

Before the Disability Law Center’s report came out, the state had concerns about the school that it flagged during visits to the facility. Those issues would need to be addressed if the school reopened, said DESE spokeswoman Jacqueline Reis in an email, “such as how they would ensure DESE is notified of serious incidents, how they would maintain appropriate staff-to-student ratios, and what their procedures would be for administering restraints, including documentation and staff training.”

The Northeast Center for Youth and Families also had earlier financial issues flagged by the state Auditor’s Office. In 2011, an audit of the nonprofit found that it misused $1.2 million in public funding that should have been given back to the state. It also concluded that the nonprofit gave staff approximately $1 million in questionable bonuses. The organization formerly went under the names of New England Center for Change and Tri-County Youth Programs.

Reopening a ‘long shot’

The Tri-County Schools’ closure was decided at the end of the summer, according to Rilla, who described it as “bittersweet.”

“I kind of championed it (closing), but we do have a board of directors and they also thought it was a good idea,” he said.

Although the school did initially plan to reopen after a temporary closure, he said that was a “long shot.” As a result of the closure, 22 employees were laid off.

“It was going to be a lot, a lot of work to get the application done again and into DESE. In my mind, I had the dream that we would reopen, but when it came right down to the brass tacks it was like really, this might be a better idea,” Rilla said.

Rilla said the Disability Law Center’s report did not influence his decision to close the school. He cited declining enrollment as the main reason. Although the school could serve up to 115 students, its enrollment last school year was 43 students. According to DESE records, enrollment was between 70 to 100 students each year in the early 2000s before dropping off.

“I just didn’t see that the enrollment was going to come back up,” Rilla said, adding that he thinks traditional public schools are keeping an increasing number of special education students in their own districts.

In addition to running the school, the Northeast Center of Youth and Families provides a therapeutic day program and coordinates foster care across the state. “As part of the decision to close, the school was to refocus who we were and what we did well,” Rilla said.

The former school building in Easthampton is not currently being used, according to Rilla, but the NEARI School, a special education school in Holyoke, is hoping to lease it. If all goes as planned, Craig Latham, executive director of the school, said NEARI will move to Easthampton in September after more than a decade of looking for a new school building.

Latham said there will be no formal collaboration with Northeast Center for Youth and Families.

“They’re just going to be our landlord,” he said.

He said he hopes the school will later purchase the building. The current school was built in 2000 for $1.5 million and later underwent $3.7 million in renovations and expansion that included the addition of a new 14,000-square-foot wing and an administrative building.

As for former Tri-County students, Rilla said he knows of about a dozen who are now at the NEARI School, Mill Pond School in Springfield, or Cutchins Programs for Children and Families in Northampton. He thinks others went to traditional public schools but he said he did not know the exact breakdown.

Since deciding to close the school, Rilla said he has not heard from former students and families who planned to come back to the school after what was initially planned to be a temporary closure.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com.




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