Eagleton School staffers plead not guilty in connection with abuse allegations
GREAT BARRINGTON — One student's head was slammed against a picnic table. Another student was kicked.
Those are among the allegations being leveled against five Eagleton School employees who are facing charges in connection with the alleged emotional and physical abuse of students between August 2015 and January 2016.
All five staffers entered not guilty pleas in Southern Berkshire District Court on Monday morning and were released on their own recognizance.
But an attorney for one of the defendants called the charges against her client, "absurd," and said the school was a hazardous work environment, which required employees to defend themselves from student attacks.
Lori Levinson, who is representing Peter Meadow, of Lenox, said her client was himself the victim of approximately 240 assaults by students during the four months he's been employed by the school, first as a counselor then as an aide.
"He's feeling horrible," Levinson said of her client. "He didn't do anything."
Eagleton School is a private year-round residential treatment facility for boys and young men special needs including autism and Asperger's syndrome.
"The children they deal with are violent," Levinson said. "They're medicated and the staff is woefully short staffed and they are put in a situation where they are at times frequently required to defend themselves against violent attacks by some of the students."
Levinson said Meadow was kicked, pushed, shoved and bitten on the hand hard enough by a student to draw blood. Some of those incidents are documented, she said.
"Although, my client explains to me that had he provided documentation for each of the assaults he never would have been able to do any work," she said.
"What the District Attorney's Office has apparently ignored in their rush to judgment is that the Eagleton School was an unsafe work environment," Levinson said. "When all is said and done, the evidence will show that my client is defending himself from a violent attack from one of the students."
Meadow, 51, faces one count of assault and battery on a disabled person and assault and battery with a dangerous weapon (shod foot) for allegedly kicking a student sometime in December 2015.
Also facing charges are: Juan P. Lopez-Lucas, 34, of Pittsfield, accused of assault and battery on a disabled person and assault with a dangerous weapon (table). He allegedly struck a student's head against a picnic table in the school's equine area sometime in August 2015.
Brian Puntin, 47, of Lenox Dale, is charged with assault and battery on a disabled person for an alleged September 2015 incident.
James Swift, 54, of Pittsfield, was charged with a single count of assault and battery on a disabled person from a Jan. 1, 2016, incident.
Debra A. Davis, 41, of Great Barrington, was charged with one count each of witness intimidation and obstruction of justice. She is accused of destroying video surveillance evidence and transferring staff who had made complaints of assaults by other staff members to different campus buildings in an alleged attempt to keep them from reporting those assaults.
Only Meadow appeared with legal counsel during the arraignments, but the others said they would hire their own attorneys.
The charges are the result of a multi-agency investigation which included federal, state and local law enforcement, according to the DA's office.
About 50 investigators, including members of the FBI, the Berkshire County Sheriff's Office, state police and Great Barrington, Williamstown and Dalton police departments, executed a search warrant at the school Saturday night as the result of an ongoing investigation into allegations of physical and emotional abuse on students by staff at the school.
All five were released on the condition they stay away from the Eagleton campus and have no contact with the students.
Puntin asked Judge Jacklyn Connly for an amendment to his conditions, which would allow him to spend up to one hour on campus, when students weren't present, to check on the well being of horses being boarded there. That request was denied after Assistant Berkshire District Attorney Kyle Christiansen said it is the state's intention to keep all five of the accused off of the campus during the investigation.
Levinson said video surveillance from inside the school may serve to exonerate Meadow of wrongdoing.
"My understanding is that the Eagleton School is chock full of video cameras and all of the acts should be on videotape, which will definitely serve to vindicate at least my client," she said.
Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh spoke briefly after the arraignments and said the students are being well looked after by the remaining staff members.
"The kids are in very good shape, and they have been since Saturday night," he said.
Pretrial hearings in all five cases were set for March 10.
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