State working to move Eagleton School students to be displaced by closure

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GREAT BARRINGTON — As the likely closure of the Eagleton School draws near, state officials are working "feverishly" to relocate its students and to prepare local school districts for the financial implications.

Hillcrest Educational Centers in Pittsfield this week announced plans to absorb several displaced Eagleton students.

"Next week, there will be three kids transferring from Eagleton over to Hillcrest," said Hillcrest President and CEO Gerard E. Burke on Friday, "and we're looking at a number of others."

Hillcrest has interviewed several more Eagleton students among a total pool of 14 referrals the state recommended as possible fits. Like Eagleton, Hillcrest runs a residential program for students with special needs.

"It depends on age, disability, gender and if and when we have openings," Burke said. "Over some time we may have room for some of them."

The school has been under investigation since January, when reports of abuse led to a raid at the school and the arrest of five staff members. Those staffers have since been fired and their cases are pending.

The school was placed on probation in February, but after repeated failures to comply with state sanctions — and additional reports of abuse, the state moved to revoke its residential group care licenses and withdraw approval of its special education program. Pending a successful appeal within 21 days, the school will be forced to close.

Thus far, state officials said no appeal has been filed and local school officials have been working to understand and manage the fallout that would result from Eagleton's closure.

The state Department of Early Education and Care on Thursday said it was "moving forward with the [license] revocation" while "working with families, placement agencies and school districts to transition the residents and students to safe and appropriate programs."

Burke said he believed the school would close "only after all the students have been discharged to other facilities" and "that could take some time."

He said the state is casting a wide net on where else it could potentially house students among Eagleton's present population of 67.

"I know that a large number of their students are being referred to places throughout the state of Massachusetts," he said.

Eagleton representatives did not return calls seeking comment on Friday, but last week, a school attorney suggested it was working to avoid closure.

"Eagleton is actively negotiating with multiple residential and special education providers to take over the operations of Eagleton School," Kathleen M. McCormick said in a statement.

Meanwhile, parents of Eagleton students say they have been left in the dark.

One parent, who wished not to be named, said Eagleton administrators told her the school has "interviewed several different providers hoping someone else could take over."

"[Eagleton] would still lose the license, but a new licensed programmer would come in, change the name and keep it open," said the woman, who lives in Haverhill.

"I already drive three hours to see my son almost every weekend, what if he ends up farther away?" she said. "It's going to devastate this kid. I fought for six years to get him such a placement, and his progression has been remarkable. Now his therapist is leaving in two weeks."

Burke said Hillcrest would consider hiring former Eagleton School employees in the future.

"It's a sad situation for everyone involved," he said. "Although the [abuse] allegations are very serious and completely unacceptable, we know there are still a good number of people down there who care about kids."

Pittsfield school officials are expecting to take a financial hit from an Eagleton closure. The administration was notified on Wednesday about the pending emergency placement of five Pittsfield students who currently attend Eagleton.

The district pays tuition of roughly $60,000 to $70,000 for each of the students to attend Eagleton. Placing those students elsewhere could prove to be much more expensive, according to Superintendent Jason "Jake" McCandless.

"Each and every [alternative option] comes with a much higher cost than we're paying [to send Pittsfield students to Eagleton]," McCandless said. "It could mean an addition of hundreds of thousands of dollars to our city budget."

He added, "Our hope is there's a local option that comes to pass on that facility and those premises, where a different organization can set up and do the same work," McCandless said. "We sincerely hope for our families that a local option is forthcoming."

Contact Phil Demers at 413-496-6214.


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