$10 million lawsuit filed against former Eagleton director Bruce Bona, 7 staff membersMore Info
Great Barrington — After 17 former employees of the now-shuttered Eagleton School were arraigned over the last few months on criminal charges including abuse of “disabled” students, at least one civil suit, asking for $10 million in damages, was filed in U.S. District Court in Springfield and at least 6 more are soon to be filed.
The charges came after a Great Barrington Police Department investigation set off a massive multi-agency response that led to the school being shut down by the state in March, and its students, with a host of mostly mental health, developmental or autism diagnoses, quickly removed from the school. A state report revealed a harrowing pattern of violence against the school’s male students, mostly teenagers, and further said the school had a “systemic propensity” to cover up or hide incidents.
Attorney Chester Tennyson, Jr. of Brockton-based Tennyson Law told the Edge his 18-year-old client, “DH,” as he is identified in the May 5 court filing, is back in Illinois, presently hospitalized for injuries and neglect suffered at Eagleton as new student there. The complaint says DH’s family would have never had sent him to Eagleton had they known about a well-documented pattern of abuse at the school.
“He’s not really doing well,” Tennyson said. “He had other injuries besides the eye orbit fractures.” Tennyson did not elaborate, however.
DH’s eye orbits were fractured on November 15, 2015 after “DH was repeatedly punched in the face by staff.” DH was also bleeding from the assault, and was not taken to a hospital emergency room until November 18, when his “diagnosis included ‘a large right medial orbital wall blow out fracture’ which resulted in muscle and fat to herniate into the defect caused by the fracture.” His parents learned of this on November 18th as well, and were told that “DH had attacked a couple of staff members and was restrained but was ‘fine’ and that such behavior was common during the first week for many residents.”
DH’s father went to the school “and was reassured by staff that this was an ‘unfortunate one off’ incident, that DH was doing well at the school and that it was in DH’s best interests to continue in the program…” In the following weeks, the school told his parents that DH was “progressing well.”
But according to the complaint, this was not the case. By January 19, 2016, staff made inconsistent reports about how DH was doing. One said he was “making good progress,” and another reported the following day that “DH had deteriorated tremendously having lost thirty pounds, not eating, not moving, constant blinking of the eyes, not attending school and was bed stricken.”
DH’s parents asked to talk to him by Skype. They were told “technical difficulties” prevented this. Between January 20th through the 25th, staff told DH’s parents that he was doing “well and was playing basketball and bingo after school.”
But on January 25, the school physician told DH’s parents that their son was in a “catatonic state” and “having seizures.” His parents insisted he be evaluated at Albany Medical Center, and “staff agreed.”
Then there were excuses that, over the next several days, staff used to explain why DH had not been taken to the hospital immediately. One reason was a “lack of staff” to take him.
DH’s father returned to the school on February 8, just after the first round of employees were arraigned on criminal charges. He found “DH in a severely deteriorated state, not talking and not moving and took his son back to Illinois where he was immediately admitted for treatment.”
DH’s beat down was one of those investigated by the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC). Lawrence Murray, then Program Quality Insurance Manager, had originally said the school’s 24-hour video surveillance had not captured the incident. But the school “eventually” provided footage that showed staff striking DH while holding his upper body in a restraint.
Tennyson also said he wasn’t sure yet how the complaint might be amended after discovery and depositions, but that it likely will be. He said, for instance, he wasn’t sure whether NAPPI (Non-abusive psychological and physical intervention), the Berkshires-based restraint training organization will also be listed in the complaint.
The filing lists the school as a defendant, and claims “negligence” against founder and Executive Director Bruce Bona, Program Manager James Yeaman, Residential Director Michael Adams, Quality Insurance Manager Lawrence Murray, Quality of Life Supervisor Crystal Spradley, and Administrator on Duty, John Goodnow. Debra Davis and Harris-El are also being sued for civil rights violations and Harris-El for the assault and battery. Yeaman, Davis and Harris-El have criminal charges pending against them.
It appears the suit on behalf of DH is just the beginning. Boston-based attorney Daniel Heffernan told the Edge he is preparing to file civil suits on behalf of 6 separate former Eagleton students, ages 16-21, with more soon to come on board.
Heffernan says it wasn’t just the abuse and neglect as a result of “actions and inactions” by staff, but emotional abuse like seclusion and “witnessing some of the abuse that allegedly occurred,” and, for one of his clients, “participating and helping out in restraining other students. Another “trauma,” he said, was “the disruption from being pulled from the school precipitously — it was very abrupt for a lot of them.”
He said “some children are still reeling from it, and it’s hard to tell if they’re going to settle in and settle in well” in their new placements. Some of his clients, he said, “are still trying to find placements for their children.”
Heffernan, who himself has a “special needs child,” added that “the damage to the students is not always readily apparent…in these cases it can be more challenging to establish the long term impact.”
Heffernan specializes in special education and disability rights, civil rights, and personal injury, and he’s represented families in similar situations. He says he hasn’t yet determined whom he will list as defendants, or whether he file in federal or state court.
“Often in these cases, most typically there is one rogue employee and others who should have done a better job supervising, or earlier incidents should have been taken more seriously,” Heffernan said. “Most concerning here is that this is more widespread.”
Both Heffernan and Tennyson told the Edge they were passionate about the work of bringing this kind of institutional abuse out of the shadows.
Heffernan said these cases and the “media attention…inspires change.”
“I’m not getting tired of it,” Tennyson said. “It’s very exciting work. We’ve seen a lot of changes, for instance, in hospitals with some very dangerous policies. It’s nice to know we have the opportunity to make some changes.”
A call to the Southfield home of Bruce Bona went unanswered. Calls to Fairview Hospital Wednesday were not returned.