GREAT BARRINGTON — A 2013 state review of Eagleton School cited an "organizational structure" that "does not provide for the effective and efficient operation of the school, supervision of school staff, and supervision of students."
Six years earlier, in 2007, an Eagleton School review by regulators featured virtually identical concerns.
Conducted by the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the two evaluations — carried out at mandated, six-year intervals — involved campus visits and extensive interviews with staff. The resulting reports cite Eagleton for a host of problems concerning crucial aspects of the school's operation.
The school began in 1977 to treat high school-aged males with "emotional and behavioral maladjustments." Since broadening its mission in 2002 to include students with autism and other developmental issues, the school has been cited by the state Department of Secondary and Elementary Education for lapses in training, certification and inadequate staff-to-student ratios.
On Saturday night, 50 local, state and federal law enforcement personnel executed a search at the school in search of evidence of emotional and physical abuse upon students by staff. Five staffers have been arrested and District Attorney David Capeless has said more arrests could be on the way. Four staffers have pleaded not guilty to assault charges, while a fifth has denied two charges of witness intimidation.
Capeless called the abuse uncovered at Eagleton a "terrible situation," which has riled school officials who deny that's the case.
On Wednesday, Eagleton School officials said that an October 2015 mid-cycle review by the state found that problems identified in the 2013 review were largely remedied and that the program was in "substantial compliance" with state regulations. The state review elevated Eagleton from "provisional" to "full" licensing approval.
The school's longtime attorney Eric MacLeish on Wednesday played down the 2007 and 2013 reviews.
"It's extraordinarily rare that you would have a licensing review that doesn't look at corrective action plans and areas of noncompliance," MacLeish said. "It doesn't surprise me that there were deficiencies, but the last [state review], which is when these acts are alleged to have occurred, was glowing."
Eagleton School Executive Director Bruce Bona said, "We take any deficiency seriously. We fixed the deficiencies. I don't believe there are any at this time."
The 2013 review found "many classrooms" operating above the state-mandated 8-1 student-teacher ratio; furthermore, staffers were commonly unlicensed or untrained.
Organizations dealing specifically with developmentally disabled children and young adults typically require staff to undergo robust training regiments, but the reports show that frequently wasn't the case at Eagleton.
"Staff record reviews and interviews of direct care staff indicated that staff do not receive training and new staff are assigned direct care duties with students prior to the staff participating in all mandated training," the 2013 Department of Elementary and Secondary Education review stated.
It added, "Interviews also indicated that staff do not receive training that is consistent with the needs of some of the population the program is currently serving; specifically students with autism and students with emotional impairments."
Eagleton School Program Director Mike Adams said all staff who deal with students receive three-day training in the Non-Abusive Psychological and Physical Intervention regiment and are retested on the material annually.
"We train diligently to respond to [impulsive and violent student tendencies] appropriately," Adams said.
However, The Eagle compared this training regimen with that of Hillcrest Educational Centers — a local outfit that houses similarly disabled students — and found the Hillcrest training far more involved.
At Hillcrest, employees must complete a nine-day training and 42 hours of additional training "solely devoted to physical intervention" before they can administer care to students.
Five years ago, Hillcrest invested $300,000 to train all staff in this protocol, Cornell University's Therapeutic Crisis Intervention system.
"Physical intervention has reduced generally since we implemented the program," Hillcrest Executive Director Shaun Tusson said.
Hillcrest staff are also required to complete 24 hours of refresher training and a six-hour recertification in the program annually.
In 2007, the state's concerns about Eagleton were much the same as in 2013.
"Personnel record review indicates that staff members are not attending all mandated trainings," the report stated, and "if staff members have attended this mandatory annual training, Eagleton School has not always documented staff attendance."
It added, "Interviews indicate that this training does not include information on reporting abuse and neglect of disabled adults to the Disabled Persons Protection Commission."
This is in stark contrast to an evaluation in 2001, in which the state Department of Education gave the school a nearly clean bill of health, and commended it for some aspects of its operation.
Young men were taught "job and career skills and how to cope in the world," said an Eagle story.
In 1993, according to the Eagleton website, the students base was expanded to include "cognitively impaired" students.
In 2000, the state Department of Education announced a more comprehensive evaluation for the state's private schools. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education announced that the evaluations would come every six years.
In a 2001 review, DESE lauded the school's programs and staff. Several programs — including the nursing plan for students, notifying parents when any kind of first aid or medication was issued to a student, and the school's policy and procedures for student discipline — were commended.
In 2002, during an expansion that included a new dormitory and gymnasium and conference center, Eagleton again opened up its student pool to include boys on the autism spectrum disorder. Students could be referred from the Department of Social Services, psychiatric facilities and high schools. That expansion required new training, new policies and more staff. The plan was approved by the state Department of Education.
By 2007, the commendations had dropped, and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education reported that the school's programming initiatives "were not always understood" by staffers; DOE was not notified when "key positions" were not filled; that protocols for administering drugs were not always followed; that protocols for welcoming autistic students were not always followed; and that the policy of separating a disruptive student from the class he is in was not always followed.
In addition, Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found student-teacher ratios above the mandated 8-to-1 existed "in many classrooms" and that the "age gap" of 48 months in one classroom was sometimes ignored. In some cases, clinical staff were teaching classes. In addition, many staffers had not completed certification. The review found some teachers did not attend mandated certification training.
By contrast, Hillcrest Educational Centers maintains a student-teacher ratio never in excess of 5-to-1 and in most cases 3-to-1. Among its autistic population, the ratio is 1-to-1.
By 2013, many of the issues at Eagleton — specifically training, certification and staffing — persisted.
Former Eagleton employee Steven Robinson said he watched these issues became worse over his seven-year tenure at the school, which ended in 2010.
"They became terribly understaffed all the time," said Robinson, former head of the school's Therapeutic Horse Riding Program. "When I first started there, it was an aide to every kid. By the time, I left teachers couldn't even go to the bathroom. I felt sorry for them. They'd be screaming, 'I need a release here.' "
He added, "If you had more help, you wouldn't have the amount of restraints [put on students] that they did."
Robinson identified "money" as the key concern which drove administration to cut staff while beginning to add to the student population.