Brookside School ex-staffer charged with assaulting disabled student

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GREAT BARRINGTON — A former employee of a residential school for adolescent boys and girls with disabilities is facing a jury of six trial in Berkshire District Court for what police and school officials say was "excessive use of force" on a male student.

Thomas Brazie, 53, of Housatonic, will be tried on May 23 on charges filed in Southern Berkshire District Court in 2016, after an investigation, which includes video surveillance of the incident at Brookside School.

Police and school investigators say Brazie, a youth development counselor, "willfully" punched and elbowed an intellectually disabled student in the head during a fight between the two. And school officials say Brazie, who was suspended then fired within several days of the Feb. 11, 2016, altercation, failed to use a proper restraint technique on the student, who was 18 at the time.

Because the victim had previously attended Eagleton School in Great Barrington, where rampant abuse by former employees resulted in the school's shuttering and a slew of prosecutions, five FBI specialists also conducted an investigation, interviewing the student about incidents at both schools.

Brookside officials had, at the time, reported the incident to police and the state Department of Children and Families.

During the last few years, the school, which is run by Pittsfield-based Hillcrest Educational Centers, Inc., stopped admitting males. Hillcrest President and CEO Jerry Burke said the company thought adolescent girls with psychiatric and emotional challenges would do better at an all-female campus. Students at the school range in age from 12 to 18.

Before the altercation began, Brazie and the student both say they were waiting for the student's medication outside the school nurse's station.

The student told investigators that he punched Brazie in the mouth while the two were waiting, because Brazie, he said, had grown "impatient" with him, and continued to say "hurtful" things, like, "your family doesn't love you because you don't listen and that is why you are here ... ."

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Police and school officials say the video footage shows the two struggle up against the door before both are on the ground, with Brazie trying to get control over the student's arms while the student claws at his face. Once on top of the student, police say, Brazie uses his radio to call for help before punching and elbowing the student in the head.

Brazie suffered an injured finger, and the student had redness on his head and forehead "but no swelling," according to the nurse, who examined him afterward.

An internal school report says Brazie did not use a proper restraint technique and "appears to use excessive force by striking student ... in the head twice."

In a written statement that was part of the school's investigation, Brazie said that the student had been acting "oppositional" that day, and that the delay at the nurse's station triggered the incident.

On Feb. 16, Brazie received a final notice from Hillcrest of his termination, which said that an internal investigation found he had violated company policy with regard to Cruel and Unusual Punishment of students, and acted in a way that "contradicts our therapeutic mindset."

The student told investigators that unlike the violence he experienced and witnessed at Eagleton School, he felt safe at Brookside, and that most staff "are nice and don't put their hands on students," with a restraint technique that brings students to the ground "slowly and safely."

Brazie was charged with one count of assault and battery on a person with intellectual disability.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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