Eagleton School parent, former instructor, describe an institution in decline
GREAT BARRINGTON — For seven years, Steven Robinson watched as the Eagleton School went through what he called an ominous decline.
"They became terribly understaffed all the time," said Robinson, a former instructor at the school. "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.' "
Finally, he said, he resigned. Robinson, a Becket resident couldn't pinpoint the year, but he said it was several years ago, some time after 2010.
"It got to the point where they were housing kids, not healing them," he said.
Robinson spoke with the Eagle on Wednesday about his experiences as head of the school's Therapeutic Horse Riding Program. He said the weekend arrests of five staffers on assault, intimidation and obstruction charges following a raid of the school came as no surprise.
"It was going to happen sooner or later," Robinson said. "Things were always being swept under the rug. ... There's going to be more stuff to come out."
Jennifer Darrow, of Dalton, parent to a 21-year-old Eagleton School student named Andrew, struck the same note.
"It feels like a pimple that popped and there's still an infection there," Darrow said. "The whole story has not come out."
Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless has said the investigation remains active and more arrests could be on the way.
Meanwhile, parents of Eagleton School students have formed a private Facebook group to discuss their respective experiences. It is proving an enlightening exercise, Darrow said.
"Most of us knew something wasn't right," she said. "Now you talk to this parent and get a puzzle piece, talk to that one and get another, and before you know a picture emerges and you see something's wrong."
Both Darrow and Robinson said "great" people remain on the staff. But they said the school suffered high staff turnover and put employees in positions for which they lacked credentials and training.
Staffing cuts and wage stagnation witnessed by Robinson were driven by administration concerns over "money," he said.
"They started to care more about the numbers than the kids, I think," Robinson said.
Before long, there were too few staff to adequately supervise students with autism — who often require one-on-one education but did not receive it at Eagleton — and kids benefitted from less and less time with clinicians, Robinson said. Even the quality of the food students were provided significantly declined, he added.
All the while, the school was increasing its student population, which now stands at 75.
"They started getting a lot of juvenile delinquents and [others with disciplinary problems] who took advantage of the kids with emotional problems," Robinson said. "It wasn't a good mix of kids. If I had two horses that wouldn't get along, I wouldn't put them in the same pen."
He added, "The level of services went down; the number of kids went up and they started losing a lot of good people. People would just quit. If you had more help, you wouldn't have the amount of restraints [put on students] that they did. These kids can act out for days at a time. Even your own kid can get on your nerves if you don't have help."
The charges and other situations detailed by Eagleton parents to The Eagle relate to situations where employees had to use restraint techniques on panic-stricken or violent students who posed a risk to themselves or others.
Staff members with criminal records were unknowingly hired who would later act inappropriately, including some staff who would take students' behavior "personally" and respond to it in retaliatory ways, according to Robinson.
"That's just putting trauma on top of trauma," Robinson said.
Darrow hit upon the same problem.
"It takes a special kind of person to do this work," she said. "If you're just filling positions with bodies, things like this are bound to happen."
At a press conference at the school on Wednesday, Eagleton School officials and parents — most notably Boston attorney Eric MacLeish — sought to tamp down "unfounded rumors" and "accusations" that have flown since the raid and subsequent arrests.
MacLeish said the school is "intensely regulated" and remains a totally sound, successful, institution, pointing to a 2015 state report congratulating Eagleton staff for remedying past training and understaffing issues and deeming the program in "substantial compliance."
The school remains fully operational. State regulators from two separate agencies visited the premises on Monday and Tuesday in response to the arrests and were satisfied with what they found, according to MacLeish.
Responding to media inquiries, MacLeish said the school has been in "close touch with all the parents and they've been kept up to speed."
Darrow said she indeed received one call from Andrew's clinician, and has spoke to her son several times. But she still expressed frustration at what she called an "information blackout."
"The lack of information is making things so much worse," she said. "This is a very big deal for families. We trusted our kids to be taken care of by the school. The lack of communication has been a struggle for sure."
Eagleton School students also remain in the dark, Darrow said.
"They know that [authorities] have been there but they don't know why," she said. "Any day now I'm going to start to get questions."
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