Citing 'systemic' abuse, state moves to shut down Eagleton School

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Citing continued "aggressive and abusive" treatment of students at Eagleton School, state education officials have taken further punitive steps that could lead to its shutdown.

Officials cited the school's "failure to fully comply with state sanctions and a growing body of evidence that problems at the school are systemic."

In an "Order to Protect Children" filed on Thursday, the state Department of Early Education and Care said despite sanctions imposed last month, monitors have noted several instances of noncompliance. Further instances of abuse have been reported at the school, investigators have confirmed details of previous abuse allegations, and the school's administrative procedures have been deemed inadequate.

"Eagleton poses a risk to the health and safety of children," according to the notice filed on Thursday by the EEC to revoke the school's license to operate residential care programs. "Eagleton staff continue to place residents at risk by utilizing physical force and unwarranted restraint techniques to control emotionally and mentally disabled individuals."

The state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education issued a similar notice to withdraw approval of Eagleton's special education program.

Allegations of staff abuse of students and subsequent cover-ups first surfaced in late January, leading to a raid of the school by investigators from various agencies and the arrests of five staffers. They have since been fired and their legal cases are pending.

State regulators began investigating the allegations in early February, and placed the school under strict regulatory supervision on Feb. 17. That notice called for the school to cease accepting new admissions and to hire additional program, operation and clinical staff and a consultant. It also prohibited staff from having unmonitored contact with students.

The EEC notice filed Thursday says Eagleton has "repeatedly" failed to comply with those sanctions. The most common violations involved reports of unmonitored activity between staff and students, but there also were reports of continued physical and emotional abuse.

Among the recent reports were incidents of verbal abuse and shaking. In one instance, a staffer allegedly placed a student in a headlock; in another, a student was left under a bed for up to 45 minutes.

Still more serious were the state's findings on prior instances of abuse it has since investigated.

Investigators cited numerous instances where students suffered broken bones while being restrained by staff members — some of which went unreported. Instances of punching, kicking and "holding a resident captive and abusing the resident" also were confirmed, and a current staff member once "threw a [student] against a ceiling and threw an object at the same [student]."

A former student told investigators he "suffered strikes to his face, abdomen and other body parts" while at the school.

When incidents did occur, the report said, the school administration colluded in suppressing it.

"EEC's investigation has revealed that Eagleton staff members frequently injured residents, and in doing so, [the school administration] either negligently failed to accurately document the incidents that occurred, or was complicit or active in covering up evidence of staff misconduct toward residents," the EEC action says.

The school has 21 days to appeal, but an EEC spokeswoman characterized the department's charges against the school as a "solid case."

If the school is forced to close, the spokeswoman said the state will help find alternative residential special education programs to re-house Eagleton's student population of 76.

The school's attorney, Kathleen M. McCormick, released a statement on Thursday saying, "Eagleton is actively negotiating with multiple residential and special education providers to take over operations of [the school]."

The statement also included a comment from Eagleton Executive Director Bruce Bona.

"As always, the priority of Eagleton remains the welfare of our students," Bona said. "Eagleton is totally committed to working with the state to ensure the safety and welfare of our students."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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