Rarely in the spotlight, Eagleton School finds itself at center of investigation

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GREAT BARRINGTON — The Eagleton School's 40-acre campus sits on a postcard-like vista just off Route 23 near the Great Barrington-Monterey town line.

The school is a residential, year-round facility for male students with cognitive, behavioral and clinical issues. Its students range in age from 9 to 22, with the average age at 13 1/2, according to a census by the state Department of Education. During the 2014-15 school year, the state reported 42 students at the school.

Eagleton, founded in 1977 by executive director Bruce Bona, is a privately owned facility. But as an accredited school, it falls under the auspices of the Massachusetts Department of Education. Over the years, Bona has had a good relationship with Great Barrington town officials and residents and is generally as low-key as the school itself.

On Saturday, Eagleton School became the center of an investigation into allegations of physical and emotional abuse on students by staff at the school, according to the Berkshire District Attorney's Office. DA David F. Capeless, who oversaw the search of the campus by 50 local, state and federal law enforcement agencies, called it "a terrible situation" and promised "justice on behalf of these vulnerable victims." The DA did not indicate if arrests were made.

Bona, the public face of Eagleton for the 38 years the school has been in existence, did not respond to messages seeking comment on Sunday. The school's website made no mention of the police investigation.

Until Saturday, the typically quiet school's most high-profile event was the Memorial Day tornado of 1995. The tornado swept through several South County towns and killed an Eagleton teacher and two students who were driving back to the school from an in-town visit. The wind lifted and tossed the vehicle, killing all three. The school built a chapel memorializing the tragedy along Route 23.

Over the years, Eagleton students and counselors at the school have had occasional brushes with the law. Virtually all the cases in the last 15 years — those that went public — involved an assault by a student on another student or a student on a teacher.

In 2015, however, a staffer was arrested for an assault on a 21-year-old student.

"There are always disciplinary issues at these types of schools," said a former staffer who declined to be identified because he continues to have a professional relationship with the school. "It's the nature of the beast. It's how an organization deals with them that makes a difference."

The former employee said many of the discipline issues are dealt with in-house at Eagleton, which is not unusual.

A 2013 state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education inspection of the school found a number of violations.

Included in this list of infractions were observations that student Independent Educational Plans (IEPs) were not up to date, that the school needed to hire more support staff, that the school needed to schedule more in-service days and implement better staff orientation policies, and that the organizational chart for the school was "vague."

However, a 2015 follow-up visit reported that all of the issues at the school that had been cited had been rectified by the school. The school's services and programs were deemed "adequate" by DESE.

Contact Derek Gentile at 413-496-6251.


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