Eagleton School parents tell children's stories of alleged abuse

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Related | Five Eagleton staffers arrested, charged with assault, intimidation, obstruction

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GREAT BARRINGTON — After 50 law enforcement personnel descended upon Eagleton School on Saturday to investigate claims of abuse upon students by staff, several parents told The Eagle of encounters involving their sons.

"This guy was huge, and he fought [my stepson Michael] to the ground and into a restraint and landed on top of him," Jessica Kinney-O'Shea of Pownal, Vt., told The Eagle. "It was incredibly traumatic for him. He remembers minute-for-minute what happened."

The parents detailed stories of alleged abuse by Eagleton staffers — typically involving rough restraint tactics that lead to injury and even hospitalization.

While it's not clear if the parents' claims were related to the arrests Sunday of five Eagleton staffers, the parents put forth examples of their sons' experiences at the school.

Located on a 40-acre campus at 446 Monterey Road, Eagleton School is a private, year-round residential school for boys and young men with special needs including autism and Asperger syndrome and other cognitive, behavioral, and developmental disabilities. It opened in 1977.

District Attorney David F. Capeless, however, called it "a terrible situation" and promised to seek justice for the victims.

On Sunday, Eagleton's clinical director Maureen Pryjma hung up on an Eagle journalist when reached for comment. Chief staff members — including Eagleton founder and executive director Bruce Bona — did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Kinney-O'Shea's son Michael, 14, suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and mood disorder. Following the above incident, he suffered a broken sternum which did not receive medical attention for another two weeks, despite the teen's immediate complaints to staff, Kinney-O'Shea said. Staff also failed to notify Kinney-O'Shea of the injury until the hospital trip.

"We were supposed to be notified, but didn't find out until two weeks later," she said.

When Kinney-O'Shea finally filed a complaint with Massachusetts Department of Children and Families regarding the staffer's behavior toward her stepson, she said Eagleton School Program Director James Yeaman attempted to justify the actions against Michael.

The staff member responsible was ultimately banned from working on Michael's unit due to the child's complaint.

According to Kinney-O'Shea, the staffer responded to the discipline by "going into Michael's room while he was sleeping, throwing clothes all over him, and smashing his television and DVD player."

She subsequently learned the staffer was a convicted felon who was later terminated by the school.

"That was the last straw," Kinney-O'Shea said. "We pulled him in July of 2014."

Kinney-O'Shea detailed other peculiarities as well. She claimed Pryjma deleted the video surveillance of Michael's restraint leading to his sternum injury, and the report on the incident falsely stated that the two had tripped due to the "aggression" of the 14-year-old.

One of Michael's Eagleton School peers Kinney-O'Shea observed to suffer a broken collarbone, and in another instance she saw a child pinned down in the school's gravel driveway for several hours by a staff member.

Michael's total stay at the Eagleton School was six months.

Heather Haywood-Ward of Pittsfield has a son still in the program, though she's questioned the school for months on similar grounds.

"I've gone to see him and he's had black eyes, fat lips, rug burns, broken blood vessels," Haywood-Ward said. "I asked about the injuries and was told he was put in a restraint. It got pretty bad and he started slamming his head off the ground. He's never done that in his life. He's never slammed his face intentionally on anything."

Jesse Haywood, her son, just turned 18 and is autistic.

Haywood-Ward added, "These types of restraints are illegal in Massachusetts. All that are allowed are passive restraints, meaning nobody gets hurt."

Haywood-Ward was distressed because she visited the school on Sunday to visit her son Jesse but staff blocked her from doing so.

"I just want to see my son and know he's OK," she said.

Capeless, who oversaw the raid, praised the work of lead investigators Jonathan Finnerty, a Great Barrington police officer, and Gregory Denys, a Massachusetts state trooper.

"Their persistence and professionalism uncovered this terrible situation and will allow us to seek justice on behalf of these vulnerable victims," Capeless said.

Personnel from the State Department of Early Education and Care accompanied investigators and were on scene to ensure the safety of the students and the continued, proper operation of the school, according to the DA's office.

"I'm shocked," Jennifer Darrow of Dalton, a parent of a 21-year-old Eagleton School young man named Andrew. "Eagleton's like a second home for me and my family."

Darrow said the program has been hugely helpful for Andrew, who has been there on-and-off since age 12, but she has not been without concerns.

"I've been worrying the past year or so, because there's been several times when restraints haven't gone right and he's ended up in the emergency room."

Darrow too filed complaints with DCF about the conduct in the past but said they were investigated and said to be "unfounded."

"There's been issues, no doubt," she said. "I need to speak with one of the investigators [on the current case] and find out what the allegations are."

Darrow said she received notification from investigating authorities assuring them that the children were unaffected by the hubbub. She said her sister visited the campus Saturday night and found "chaos, emergency vehicles everywhere, everything cordoned off and people being blocked from entry."

"The continuing events are part of an investigation into allegations of physical and emotional abuse on students by staff at the school that was begun by the Great Barrington Police Department earlier this month and has involved multiple agencies," Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh Jr. said in a statement issued Saturday night.

"Detectives went to the Eagleton School [on Saturday] to gather evidence related to the investigation. Police will remain at the school for the immediate future to ensure that the collection of evidence related to the investigation proceeds in a thorough, coordinated, and orderly manner," Walsh said.

In a joint statement, Walsh and Great Barrington Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin stated "there is absolutely no public safety danger to the community."

"Great Barrington is home to a number of public and private schools that serve a diverse population of students across a broad spectrum, and we want the community — and the parents at home — to be aware of a police investigation that is ongoing," Walsh said. "However, there is no danger and no threats have been made to the safety of anyone. More information will be released as soon as it is available."

Walsh also recognized Officer Finnerty for his work as the department's lead investigator on the case.


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