Eagleton abuser gets 6 months in jail

James Swift appears in Southern Berkshire District Court on Feb. 1, 2016.

PITTSFIELD — The first person arrested as a result of abuse allegations at the former Eagleton School is also the first person to be sentenced to jail in the case.

James Swift, 57, was sentenced to six months at the Berkshire Jail and House of Correction after pleading guilty to assaulting a 19-year-old autistic man.

Swift is one of about 20 people who were charged in the aftermath of a January 2016 raid of the school for boys and young men with developmental disabilities.

Swift's Jan. 1, 2016 assault was immediately reported to police and began the chain of events that would eventually lead to the school's closure a few months later, said Assistant Berkshire District Attorney Gregory Barry, who prosecuted the case.

On that day, the victim, who received gold star stickers on a progress card, was upset that he only received four for that day's efforts, instead of the five to seven stars he normally earned.

Swift admitted tearing up the card in front of the student, who then took a step toward Swift. Swift then took the student to the ground and punched him at least three times in the face.

Barry noted Swift's case was different than others that had come before the court. In most of those other cases, Barry said, the former staff members were charged with assaultive behavior as a result of a restraining hold that was applied incorrectly or too aggressively.

Instead, Barry said Swift's case was a straight assault and battery committed for "no valid reason."

Swift was at the school to supervise and protect the students, Barry said. "He did the exact opposite of that."

Swift's attorney, Richard Taskin called his client "a compassionate and decent person put in an impossible situation."

Taskin described Swift as a man of faith who decided to plead guilty rather than take his case to trial after, among other things, consulting with his pastor.

Taskin said Swift is a good person who committed a bad act and said it was the culture of the school itself that was corrupt.

A pending civil lawsuit against the school and several of its staff members alleges that staff members routinely abused and neglected students, denied them proper medical attention, did not adequately investigate or report instances of abuse, and denied guardians access to students if they complained or raised concerns.

Swift pleaded guilty before Judge John Agostini to one count each of assault and battery on a disabled person and caretaker abuse on a disabled person.

The sentence was the result of an agreed recommendation between Barry and Taskin.

In January 2016, the campus was the target of a raid by local, state and federal law enforcement alleging a pattern of abuse of students by staff. The school remained open after the raid, but it closed for good in April 2016 after its licenses to operate were revoked.

Seven other cases against former Eagleton staff members have been resolved:

- On July 21, Jose A. Valqui was found not guilty of assault and battery with a dangerous weapon, assault and battery on a disabled person and caretaker abuse. Valqui's case is the only one that has gone to trial.

- On Oct. 12, Derrick Saunders pleaded guilty to assault and battery and caretaker abuse charges stemming from a May 2015 allegation. His case was continued without a finding for one year.

- On Nov. 1, Alexis A. Lopes pleaded guilty to seven counts of assault and battery on a disabled person, six counts of caretaker abuse and one count of assault and battery causing serious bodily injury in connection with assaults on five students from January 2015 to January 2016. His case was continued for one year, and he was required to undergo anger management counseling.

- On Nov. 20, Damian C. Sinclair pleaded guilty to assaulting three students from Jan. 1, 2014, to May 31, 2015. His case was also continued for one year.

- On Jan. 3, Ishmael Lytle pleaded guilty to one count each of assault and battery on a disabled person and caretaker abuse on a disabled person. His case was continued without a finding for one year.

- On Jan. 29, Isaac H. Harris-El, pleaded guilty to two counts each of assault and battery on a disabled person and caretaker abuse on a disabled person. He was given a one-year suspended jail sentence on one set of charges and continued the other set of charges without a finding for one year. Presuming he remains out of further legal trouble until then, those charges will ultimately be dismissed.

- Charges against Martin Schmitt, alleging assaults against three students in 2015, were dropped by the state.

Bob Dunn can be reached at bdunn@berkshireeagle.com, at @BobDunn413 on Twitter and 413-496-6249.