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David Scribner
Eagleton School Director and Founder Bruce Bona, during a news conference when the crisis surrounding his school emerged.

$10 million lawsuit filed against former Eagleton director Bruce Bona, 7 staff members

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By Thursday, May 19, 2016 News 11

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.

The rock that held the Eagleton school iconic Eagle sculpture is now barren. The Eagle is gone. Photo: Heather Bellow

The rock that held the Eagleton school iconic Eagle sculpture is now barren. The Eagle is gone. Photo: Heather Bellow

“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.”

In April the Eagleton School eagle overlooked the campus. Photo: Heather Bellow

In April the Eagleton School eagle overlooked the campus. Photo: Heather Bellow

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.”

Former Eagleton Program Manager James Yeaman.

Former Eagleton Program Manager James Yeaman.

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.

Former Eagleton staff member Debra Davis, accused of tampering with the video surveillance apparatus.

Former Eagleton staff member Debra Davis, accused of tampering with the video surveillance apparatus.

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.


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11 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Casey says:

    I could vomit. To think that someone would, without remorse, strike a disabled child sickens me. To have so many people in one place working together scares me. What has our world become? NEVER is hitting back when you are angry the answer. Yes these children act out, try living in their head for a day. Try making sense of the world through they eyes. The mentally challenged youth have finally been given a voice against the Eagleton demons! The property is worth money it should be sold and the money given to the families of the abused boys. The devil should not profit from the torture chamber that was run there for years.

    1. Carla Smith says:

      I am sure there will be many civil suits forthcoming against the ownership, leadership and management of Eagleton that were no doubt the root cause of these many atrocities. And there should be. But I want to suggest to the attorneys involved that there are other major accomplices in these atrocities…namely the MA EEC and DPPC. Ask for former employees of Eagleton to come forward and reveal what they reported directly to these agencies, as they are required to do by mandated reporter laws, and what actions were taken as a result. I believe it can be proven that serious abuse was directly reported to these agencies many, many times by Eagleton employees who witnessed abuse, and were appalled by it, and these agencies simply looked the other way, and took no action. This is supreme negligence. Don’t let these incompetent, potentially corrupt state agencies escape accountability here. I believe it is possible that employees of these organizations may even have been on the Eagleton payroll (bought and paid for). Dig deeply here counselors, as I think a case for negligence against these agencies and their employees is likely to be as strong as that against Eagleton ownership, leadership and management. And to date, they have not been held accountable in any way, shape, form. i.e. No statements of what they will do differently going forward to preclude future occurences. No statements of employee disciplinary action or terminations. Complete, total washing of their hands. Yet while all this was going on at Eagleton, Eagleton was being reviewed by these agencies and lauded for the progress they were making. In fact, EEC published a report in early February, just before everything broke on this story, indicating what great progress Eagleton was making in addressing issues. What a total, complete farce! And then when they realized the s**t was about to hit the fan, they took all kinds of action – sanctions, probation and ultimately closure – to futher protect and distance themselves from the situation. The public MUST demand accountability from the EEC and DPPC. And the lawyers bringing forward the lawsuits MUST NOT overlook the negligence and possible corruption of these organizations as they move forward.

  2. Jamiah olds says:

    I told people people constantly about this place man. This place was entirely abusive. And staff were very vicious and never cared about how bad they’ve treated us. I’ve been there from 1999 til 2002. I have experienced it all. They do too much just to make they checks deliciously fat. Jeez they don’t give a hoot about us. They only care for the money. I wish I could’ve been there because I would’ve stood against them and demand that I’d speak a higher authority over them. It just sickens me to hear that this gotten worst after 14 freaking years. It’s not right. You guys did the thing man them kids do not deserve that abuse. Thanks for justifying this. It’s over and I’m glad they’re in a better place. Bless you all Massachusetts. And the authority too.

    1. Jamiah Wallace olds says:

      told people people constantly about this place man. This place was very abusive. And staff were very vicious and never cared about how bad they treated us. I’ve been there from 1999 til 2002. I have experienced it all. They do too much just to make they checks juicy and fat full of money. Jeez they don’t give a hoot about us. They only cared for the money. I wish I could’ve been there to catch this because I would’ve stood up them and demand that I’d speak a higher authority over them. It just sickens me to hear that this gotten worst after 14 freaking years. It’s not right. You guys did the right thing. Jeez them kids do not deserve that abuse. Thanks for justifying this. It’s over and I’m glad they’re in a better place. Bless you all authorities and investigators. For taking care of this. This is a relief.

  3. Jack Hartzell says:

    I went to eagleton from 2011-12 and I am shocked to hear some of this. Coming from Virginia where bad children are spanked properly, I find these allegations of “emotional abuse” pathetic. This school changed and quite possibly saved my life. I am furious that the icelandic ponies were confiscated from Brian. He is a truly good man and he deserves his animals’ return. And to all you folks talking about disabled “children”, they’re large adolescents and young adults up to age 22 not toddlers. Oh and they’re violent as hell. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is financial corruption at eagleton but compared with similar placements I’ve been to in Virginia they were extremely gentle. Massachusetts needs to grow a pair. Spare the rod and spoil the child.

  4. Evelyn weis says:

    My son was in that school he kept telling me to get him out of there never in a million years I thought he was been mistreated this place was supposed to help him

  5. Trish Menard says:

    My son is “KM” and because hes not able to communicate well about his beatings and broken arm, the Berkshire DA has chosen to drop my son’s case.

  6. Cameron says:

    Everything and this article would never be hard to believe for me I went to that school And luckily left it about a year before It was shut down, but even a year before It was a horrible place some staff used pain strangulation and more To get things over with and get you to do it they wanted.
    In the staff that you see in these articles they were not the only ones, And I hope the kids who got those severe injurys Have recovered and are feeling much better.

  7. Carl Stewart says:

    Is there such a paucity of news in the Berkshires (or elsewhere) that The Edge is reduced to recycling an article from 2 1/2 years ago? Wouldn’t an update on the status of this situation been more appropriate?

    1. Carl, you are mistaken — and not the first time you have fired off remarks without knowing the facts. The comment we received the other day from a former resident of Eagleton School was responding to an article we ran two years ago. We did not republish any article about Eagleton School. This individual happened to be searching our site, and found that story in our archives — and others about the meltdown of Eagleton. He wrote a comment to that two-year-old article — as he is entitled to do, I’m sure you would agree. As a result, his comment appeared in a list of recent comments.

      1. Carl Stewart says:

        David—-

        Before you accuse me of being unaware of the facts, you should check to make sure your accusation is correct. I read the comment from “Cameron,” dated 2 days ago and then re-read the original article by Heather. I was aware of the facts but your publication was guilty, at a minimum, of poor journalism. How difficult would it have been for you to append a very short editor’s note indicating the sequence of events? You think that the NYTimes or Washington Post would have left their readers guessing? Of course they would not have because they believe that clarity is better than confusion.

        And would you point out where on a previous occasion I have “fired off” remarks that weren’t fact-based? Oh, you must be referring to the fairly recent time that I remarked on Mr Cowgill’s claim that the South Egremont School was closed because of asbestos issues.

        And, by the way, I don’t claim to be a journalist. You do and therefore you have a much greater obligation to be accurate than I do.

        Carl

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