Eagleton School closes after licenses revoked; students being relocatedMore Info
Great Barrington — After Eagleton School was told its licenses will be revoked over what the state said was a systemic culture of staff abuse of the school’s disabled male students and subsequent cover-ups of that abuse, the school was taken over by the state on March 24, and is now down to its last few students, who are being moved to new residential or other programs. The school’s 40 acres of land and buildings on Route 23 near the Monterey border are for sale.
The state brought in John Foley of Center for School Crisis Intervention and Assessment, Inc. out of Holyoke to oversee the running of the school during what he says was a fast “emergency” transition over a period of two weeks, to both take care of its students, ages 9 to 22, and run the school until every child was out.
In an office that once belonged to Executive Director Bruce Bona, and was later occupied by the school’s lawyers, Foley told The Edge his role is strictly “rapid response to protect children,” and he would not comment when questioned about possible criminal charges being brought against more employees, Bona, or former Program Director James Yeaman.
Calls to Bona’s Southfield home were not returned, nor were calls to school attorney Kathleen McCormick.
After an investigation started by the Great Barrington Police Department prompted by a string of abuse complaints from the school for students with autism or developmental delays, the Berkshire County District Attorney’s office and State Police got involved and made five arrests; four for assault and battery of a disabled person, and one for tampering with evidence. The school has 24-hour video surveillance that police have accused employees of tampering with to delete evidence of certain incidents. The school’s licenses were pulled by the state’s Early Education Commission (EEC), which documented multiple incidents, among them students being struck while held in restraints.
The investigation is ongoing.
In a prepared statement EEC spokesperson Kathleen Hart said “effective Friday, April 8, 2016, Eagleton School’s residential group care licenses will be revoked, and its approval as a provider of publicly-funded special education services will be withdrawn. Most of the students will have transitioned to new placements by that time. The campus will remain open on an emergency basis to allow additional time to find alternative placements for the remaining residents.”
Foley says there were originally 72 students at the school; when he was summoned two weeks ago it was down to 66 or 67. He said by this weekend the number of student should be down in the “single digits.”
The goal, he added, was to have everyone out by Saturday April 9, but “it’s been a daily process,” with a crew that came with him from his Holyoke-based organization, which both oversees schools and steps in for emergencies. He noted that “an emergency closure like this is unprecedented.”
“This is the first time I’ve closed a school,” he said, explaining that the situation was similar to what happened at the Peck School in Holyoke, where an investigation reported similar abuses of disabled students.
Foley, a special education teacher, grew emotional as he described his role here, and at one moment paused to stop tears. “I take it personally when something like this happens to kids,” he said. In the next breath he said in 1975 he had worked as a psychology intern at the Belchertown State School for the Feeble Minded, a place that became a poster child for inhumane conditions in institutions.
His work these last two weeks at Eagleton, he said, amounted to keeping the food truck coming, the buildings maintained, and the students cared for, all now with state money. He says he gets a lot of calls from creditors every day, and when asked if the school was in significant debt Foley refused to comment, adding that his role is strictly to protect and care for children.
Foley confirmed the school property, owned by Eagleton School Inc. and Eagleton Properties, LLC is for sale, though a Multiple Listing Services (MLS) search did not turn up the property. All the school’s buildings and group homes combined on 40 acres are worth $4.6 million, according to town records, and throw off about $66,000 in annual property taxes.
Another sticky spot is that Eagleton’s staff of 160 was given short notice, and he said his team is scrambling to deal with health insurance issues and to help with resumes. A representative from the state’s Health Connector program is at the school, he added. Laura Ferriter, an administrator with his organization who is also working in the office alongside him, said Eagleton falls into the exception to the U.S. Department of Labor’s WARN (Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act) policy that 60 days notice is required for large layoffs. In this case, she said, the exception is due to “unforeseeable business circumstances” after its license was revoked. She said the Department of Unemployment Assistance (DUA) was immediately called and made aware of the situation.
When asked how the staff are handling the sudden job losses, Foley was sympathetic. “How would you feel if the rug was pulled out from under you?”