Crisis management leader recounts challenge of swift Eagleton School closure


GREAT BARRINGTON >> "I've never closed a school, and neither has anyone else."

That all changed last week, according to John Foley, founder and CEO of Holyoke's Center for School Crisis Intervention and Assessment.

At 2:30 p.m. Friday, the last student was transferred from the Eagleton School to a similar program elsewhere, according to state education regulators who ordered and oversaw the shutdown of the private, residential school in Great Barrington. In all, 72 students were moved from the campus in a little over three weeks' time.

"This was super-rapid, and it wasn't great for the kids," Foley said, "but the speed was out of my control."

Foley was hired by the state last month to oversee the unprecedented shutdown of the school in response to an alleged culture of "systemic abuse" by staff toward the school's vulnerable population of developmentally disabled young males, and later attempts to cover up the actions.

Eagleton Properties LLC, owner of the former school buildings and parcels on Monterey Road and White Birch Road, now is marketing the former school buildings and associated 40 acres in hopes of attracting "similar programs," Foley said. The campus is valued in excess of $4.5 million, according to town records.

During an interview with the Eagle on Wednesday, Foley described a frantic effort to find homes for the dozens of students who lived at the school.

"It clearly was a crisis," he said. "The challenge was absorbing the anxiety coming from the kids and the staff while stabilizing, re-establishing a routine and maintaining structure and a safe and secure environment. We did that. For three weeks, we kept those kids very safe."

The most involved work saw Foley relocate 14 children to new programs in a single day. Departures were less fitful at other times, numbering several per day.

Massachusetts students left for other in-state programs for the most part, Foley said, while out-of-state students returned to programs mostly in their home states. Hillcrest Educational Centers in Pittsfield, which runs a residential program for students with special needs, took on a number of Eagleton School students.

Pittsfield Public School officials were bracing for increased costs of as much as "hundreds of thousands of dollars" resulting from Eagleton's closure because sending five city students who went there would invariably be far more costly.

Foley's work also involved rapidly securing unemployment benefits and health insurance for staff.

"How would you feel?" Foley said. "The rug got pulled out from under them pretty quickly, and having that particular job experience on their resume is not going to be productive going forward."

Amid accusations of staff abuse of students, state, local and federal officials conducted a raid on the campus on Jan. 30 that led to the arrest of five staff members. Those staffers have since been fired and their cases are pending.

In the weeks that followed, staff members continued to repeatedly violate state probationary terms that resulted from the initial raid, including with renewed instances of physical abuse on students, according to state observers. That led to an order in March to revoke the school's license and approval to operate.

A deeper investigation into prior abuses turned up even more disturbing details about conditions there, authorities said.

Numerous parents of Eagleton School students gave interviews to The Eagle in the wake of the scandal. Some testified to physical abuse and "inhuman" treatment of students, including their own children, others expressed genuine regret, saying their children progressed at Eagleton.

Following the Jan. 30 raid, Berkshire County District Attorney David Capeless said it was "a terrible situation" at Eagleton. Investigation into abuses at the school — heavily detailed in the March 17 state court filing called an "Order to Protect Children" — remains active and could result in additional arrests.

In the meantime, Great Barrington stands to lose more than $60,000 in annual revenue on Eagleton School property taxes as a result of the closure.

"It's a little too soon to tell, but I think there's all kinds of possibilities [for the property]," Great Barrington Select Board Chairman Sean Stanton said.

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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