Photo Gallery | Eagleton School press conference addresses abuse allegations
GREAT BARRINGTON — Eagleton School was described as a high-functioning and "intensely regulated" operation by school officials and parents on Wednesday, just days after five staffers were charged in connection with the alleged abuse of students.
At a press conference in the school, Boston attorney Eric MacLeish sought to bat away "unfounded rumors" and "accusations" of systemic problems, instead offering "the other side of Eagleton School."
He questioned the scale of the law enforcement raid of the school Saturday night and took issue with the Berkshire district attorney's suggestion that a "terrible situation" had been uncovered there, which MacLeish said led to an outsized "media frenzy."
"Eagleton is not a place where there is a terrible situation," he said. "It is a place that is filled with incredible professionalism and commitment to people with disabilities."
Federal, state and local law enforcement officials descended on the campus on Saturday to execute a search warrant in connection with the investigation of the alleged abuse of students.
Five employees were later arrested, and Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless has said the investigation remains live and more arrests could be on the way.
Four of the accused staffers are facing assault charges: Peter Meadow, Brian Puntin, James Swift and Juan Pablo Lopez-Lucas. A fifth, Debra Davis, is charged with intimidating a witness and obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying video surveillance and trying to cover up the alleged assaults.
They have all pleaded not guilty and are currently on paid suspension from the school.
"Unfortunate things will happen in these institutions, despite good people, great policies and procedures," MacLeish said. "We don't know enough to know whether they happened here. We will find out, and we will tell the truth and take action.
"We're going to get to the bottom of this," he added.
MacLeish, widely known for representing hundreds of victims of alleged sexual abuse by priests during the early 1990s, said the alleged incidents should not cast a pall on everything Eagleton does.
He proudly described the residential school for boys with developmental disabilities as unique and demonstrably successful.
"We are obviously very concerned about what happened," MacLeish said. "We're taking it very seriously. We are conducting our own investigation."
MacLeish introduced Eagleton School parent, Mike, who said his son is suffering "18 diagnosed maladies" and has improved immeasurably at the school.
"This place saved his life, my life and my wife's life," said Mike, who only was identified by his first name. "In the short span of 18 months, my son went through this program and is now a completely different child. He's learned to cope with his demons, not drug his demons."
Mike, who is from northern New Jersey, said his son will now attend a "regular" high school — as opposed to a therapeutic one — for his senior year.
"That's not my doing, that's their doing," Mike said, pointing back to the Eagleton staff who flanked the podium.
State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education regulators gave the school a clean bill of health after an October 2015 review, MacLeish said.
Two earlier reviews, in 2007 and 2013, however, flagged the school for significant issues, most notably having too few staffers and inadequate training.
But MacLeish said extraordinary visits by state regulators prompted by the raid and subsequent arrests have resulted in "no regulatory restrictions whatsoever."
"The school is operating on all cylinders, is open for intake, and we're ready to serve our current students as well as those who might consider us an option," he said. "Despite [the arrests and media coverage], everybody has showed up for work."
MacLeish has served as counsel to Eagleton School for 30 years. He is being assisted by Great Barrington attorney Kathleen M. McCormick in the abuse case.
Eagleton Program Director Mike Adams said all employees who deal with students receive rigorous, three-day training in the Non-Abusive Psychological and Physical Intervention regiment and are retested on the material annually. He also said employees are required to report neglect and abuse.
Eagleton Executive Director and founder Bruce Bona, in response to Eagle questions, acknowledged the difficulty of getting and retaining qualified staff, despite "competitive" wages he pegged at $60,000 annually for fully certified teachers.
"I think it's fair to say all residential treatment centers have a difficult time hiring special ed teachers that are fully licensed and certified for two distinct reasons," Bona said. "Public schools offer summers off, and many times public school parents will be home when their children are home. We're not near a Boston or a Springfield where it's easy to get teachers, and when you get them," other local schools often hire them away.
Bona said as of Wednesday, all the school's teachers are fully licensed except one.
In a prepared statement, Bona said he was "disheartened and very concerned that the actions of our staff have come under question."
Eagleton's computers, documents and files were seized by authorities conducting the raid, materials that were beginning to be returned to the school as of Wednesday, MacLeish said.
Eagleton treats a total 75 boys ages 9-to-21 hailing from 12 different states and one from the Cayman Islands, and maintains a staff of 160. Tuition for each of these students range between $141,000 and $149,000. It comprises nine separate residences — regulated by the state Department of Early Education and Care — and educational programs regulated by DESE.
The charges all relate to employees in the school's autism unit, which contains 15 students.