Sixteen employees of Eagleton School in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, now face criminal charges over the mistreatment of students with emotional disabilities. On state orders, the 39-year-old institution has shut down. Eagleton was the second school in Western Massachusetts to be accused of abuse and neglect in a year. Peck school in Holyoke was also the subject of a scathing report. How can this happen, and what can be done?
When Pam Cavanaugh started working in special education in Holyoke 13 years ago, she remembers actually getting to teach — even though most of her students had psychological or emotional disabilities, from autism to abuse-related PTSD.
“They would be dissociating, they didn’t know where they were. Students would be scratching themselves or banging their heads,” says Cavanaugh. “There were some kids who were suicidal. Some kids were assaultive.”
But Cavanaugh, a petite woman with a calm demeanor, felt she had enough help — including staff trained in crisis management — to handle students’ behavior and education in this high-poverty district.
“The kids felt successful,” she says. “They felt they were in a program that cared about them.”
That began to change, she says, in the mid 2000s, as budget cuts across the state effected many programs — including Holyoke’s Therapeutic Intervention Program (TIP). She says class sizes grew from six or eight to about 12. Children with mental illness were put in the same program as those with behavioral problems. Then came cuts in support staff, counselors and supervisors.
“When you don’t have people doing proactive work, you’re constantly gonna be putting out fires. And not getting a chance to kind of stop and say, what do you need, what can we offer you, let’s go for a walk, are you hungry? Do you need a snack?” Cavanaugh says. “These are the kinds of things that when you have support staff available you can stop and prevent behavior from escalating.”
By the time the program moved to the Peck School, which serves grades four through eight, Cavanaugh says the district stopped sending as many troubled students to specialized residential programs, which are expensive. And that led to scarier behavior in classrooms.
“Kicking. A student pushing you,” she says. “I’ve had a chair lifted over my head at me at one point; I was pregnant at that time.”
Increasingly, she says, the staff felt they had no choice but to control kids with restraints. That means physically holding onto a student. In extreme form, a prone restraint is when a student is held face down on the floor — which, as of January first, is mostly banned in Massachusetts.
Reports finds ‘pervasive culture’ of restraints
Other restraints — like an arm wrap from behind — are meant to be a last resort when a student is about to harm themself or someone else.
“Here, there seemed to be a pervasive culture of a lot of restraints, lots of force in those restraints, and injuries to the youngsters,” says Stan Eichner, litigation director at the Boston-based Disability Law Center, which investigated Holyoke’s therapeutic program for abuse after a staff complaint.
In a report last fall, the center claimed there were 200 restraints in one year, 40 of them prone, and 3 students were restrained at least 20 times each.
Though Pam Cavanaugh was not named in the report (no one was), she says some of the claims were exaggerated and she thinks the authors unfairly demonized the staff.
“At the time (of the investigation), I was thinking, ‘Well, these are professional investigators. They’re gonna see that this is our job and we’re doing our job as best as we can with the resources that we have.'”
Eichner is not moved by that explanation.
“Being under-resourced is never really in my mind an excuse for things such as, a child weighing less than a hundred pounds being jumped on by three people, and suffering a head injury,” he says.
Eichner says that’s especially unforgivable with students who’ve already experienced trauma at home.
“They present challenging behaviors, that’s unquestionably true. But I don’t think they’re out of control,” he says. “And as hard as that is, the solution isn’t to throw them around, treat them in rough, re-traumatizing way.
Holyoke looks for answers
So what is the solution? That question has gone to Stephen Zrike, a former superintendent who took over Holyoke schools after they went into state receivership last year.
“I think it has a lot do with resources, but I also think it has to do with program design,” he says. “It’s also systemic.”
Zrike has replaced the top administrators at the Peck school. Though he would not let me observe the therapeutic program, Zrike says he’s hired more staff, offered trainings in safe restraint and contracted with a private school to provide experts who can intervene in a crisis.
He also gave the green light for Holyoke’s first trauma conference, where teachers attended an afternoon of workshops that were part practical advice, part support group.
In one workshop, teachers shared their stories of trying to control emotionally volatile children.
“I don’t know what to do with kids that are just so overcome with sadness,” said one teacher. “I can say, ‘I’m going to leave you alone for five minutes. I’m gonna leave the box of tissues here if you need it,'” said another.
“Their behaviors are so dang powerful. They take control of the entire freakin’ classroom,” added Peck school counselor Jessica Olivares McBride, who was leading the workshop. She ended by urging teachers to demand more help in the classroom.
“The district is now saying to you, ‘This is important to us,'” said McBride. “Hold them accountable. We need more resources.”
Responding with compassion — and throw pillows
But it’s not only about resources, says Kim Sanders, a consultant on school mental health. She’s vice president of the Grafton health network, a program in Virginia for emotionally disabled children.
“We have quite a history of using restraint and seclusion ourselves,” Sanders says.
When Sanders worked in the classroom, she says, she was often the target of aggression, so she responded in kind — often with restraints.
“I’ve probably used (restraints) in thousands of those kinds of situations,” Sanders says, recalling how behavior would escalate. “Someone has literally got two hands in your hair, and is trying to pull your face toward them to bite you in the face.”
After a new boss came in, Sanders says they developed a curriculum that was more sensitive to students’ traumatic backgrounds and focused on building relationships.
They also came up with gentle props that would protect staff but not hurt the kids: bean bags, throw pillows and eventually foam blocking pads.
“It’s a whole lot different when a kid is in crisis when you can hold a blocking pad up, you can tell him, ‘I’m just gonna hold this up to keep myself safe, I want to keep you safe. Are you OK? Is there something i can get you? What’s wrong?'” Sanders says. “When you can stay kind and compassionate, versus hold them against their will.”
And more investment in supervision would help, says social worker Simon Taylor. He ran Holyoke’s therapeutic program a decade ago and now consults for schools.
Taylor says that instead of monthly staff meetings, he’d like to see weekly one-on-ones where teachers and aides can learn from encounters that went badly. But that raises salary costs, which doesn’t go over well with his public school clients.
“Every time I’ve tried that, I get laughed at,” Taylor says. “And not one public school administrator has been willing to support that model.”
Monitoring to continue
Stephen Zrike says he has hired a new supervisor for the therapeutic program and the use of restraints has gone down, though he would not say by how much.
The Disability Law Center will be monitoring Peck at least through 2016. But even if Holyoke shows improvement, Stan Eichner says, “We do have concerns about how widespread this mistreatment is of youngsters with disabilities statewide. We think there needs to be a more rigorous, monitoring and oversight.”
Special education teacher Pam Cavanaugh has left Holyoke and now works in a nearby district, which she asked not to identify. She says classes are smaller, she has more helpers, and social pressures on students — like poverty and crime — are not as severe as in Holyoke. As a new hire, she gave up a lot of job security, but it’s worth it, she says, to really teach again.
New England Public Radio’s Adam Frenier contributed to this report.
Correction: A previous version of this story had the wrong state for Grafton health network, which is based in Virgina.