Eagleton School head welcomes scrutiny from consultant
GREAT BARRINGTON — A consultant hired to work with Eagleton School in the wake of abuse allegations there is expected to be on campus this week to begin a thorough examination of the school's operations.
Dr. Charles F. Conroy, longtime director and chief operating officer of the Franklin School in Lancaster, a residential school similar to Eagleton, was retained by the school as one of a series of voluntary measures to address concerns about the treatment of students.
"My charge is to look at administrative procedures, some of the school's reporting procedures, their training procedures, their restraining procedures and perhaps other aspects of the school," Conroy said in an interview with The Eagle.
The private residential school is for boys and young men with special needs, including autism and Asperger syndrome and other cognitive, behavioral and developmental disabilities. It has about 73 students.
Five employees are facing charges in connection with allegations of abuse of students following a Jan. 30 campus raid by local, state and federal law enforcement agents. Four are facing assault charges; a fifth is charged with intimidation of a witness. All have pleaded not guilty.
In a recent interview with The Eagle, administrators stressed that the school is taking steps to ensure state standards are upheld, the needs of students are met, and staffers are equipped with the skills they need.
"If these people went outside our policy, I'm not happy," said Bruce Bona, executive director and founder of the school, referring to the employees accused in the abuse case. He said the remainder of the 140 employees at the school are "outstanding."
School officials are conducting their own investigation "concurrent with the investigation with the Berkshire District Attorney's Office," said Kurt Garavaltis, director of admissions and marketing at the school.
As a result of the school's investigation, four employees, including two of those who were arrested, were fired last week. Three others have been suspended.
Officials declined to identify the workers who were fired, citing privacy issues, as well as a request from the district attorney to not comment directly on the case.
As Conroy begins his review this week, he also will be scrutinizing the school's follow-through on recommendations issued by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
In a 2013 report, the state raised a number of training and staffing issues, which in a 2015 follow-up were listed as "partially implemented."
The state's website indicates that a "partially implemented" designation is primarily for planning purposes and not necessarily a red flag.
"There are new regs coming out regularly," Conroy said. "If the school isn't up to date, then I'll make some suggestions as to how to address that."
The consultant said he intends to be thorough in his assessment.
"I'll be there during the school day, but also during the evening and on weekends," he said. "You know, the students are in school only 30 hours a week. But there are 168 hours in a week, so that leaves another 138 hours. This is a residential school, so I want to see how they operate the rest of the time."
Should there be issues with the school, he said, "I'm a straight shooter; I'll report them."
Bona supported that approach.
"If there are problems here, I want to know about it," he said. "If we need to make adjustments, then we will do that."
Added Garavaltis: "This really doesn't work if we can't be transparent."
On the matter of training, Michael Adams, the acting program director, said the certification is fairly extensive, and includes training for encounters with students, CPR and reporting and documenting incidents.
Employees must be refreshed at the end of every year and recertified every two years, he said.
"None of the [current] staffers would be working if they did not have sufficient training," Adams said.
Garavaltis said employees also undergo a background check through both the state and federal databases, which is beyond the usual background check protocol.
The students are screened as well.
"We want to make sure they'll be a good fit for us," Garavaltis said. "The students also get background checks, with documentation from physicians, clinicians, psychologists, teachers and families."
There are 18 students on a waiting list, he said.
Dealing with students with special needs presents enormous challenges, Conroy said.
"Programs like Eagleton's go through ups and downs. You get a different mix of kids almost every year," Conroy said. "The most important thing about types of programs like Eagleton is that they're done right. It's important for the kids that they get the support they need."
Bona said that he has been gratified by the response of the staff to the crisis. Many have come into work early to make sure the students were feeling safe and secure.
"They all believe the safety of our students comes first," he said. "If there are people here who don't, they should be disciplined."
"There's a perception that these kids are some kind of juvenile delinquents," Conroy said. "They're not. They have an illness. And they know they have an illness. And they and their parents are counting on the school to help them."
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