Report: Restraints On Special Needs Students Were 'Excessive' At Holyoke School

A state report says there were "systemic failures" at a public school in Holyoke that has recently come under fire for allegations of student abuse.

The report, which was released Tuesday by the state Department of Early and Secondary Education, said students at the Peck Full Service Community School, which serves children with emotional and behavioral disabilities, were restrained more than 200 times last year.

"In particular, 3 students were restrained more than 20 times and one student was restrained more than 50 times," the report says.

Restraint was often not justified, the report says, and the use of excessive restraint was blamed on poor training and lack of oversight.

The nine-page report evaluates the school's Therapeutic Intervention Program, which, according to the western Massachusetts city's school district, is a "specialized, moderate needs special education program" that focuses primarily on helping students develop "social, emotional and/or behavioral functioning through the provision of therapeutic and supportive services." The school serves students in fourth- through eighth-grade.

In December, prosecutors opened an investigation into the treatment of the school's students. The probe was launched about a week after a nonprofit advocacy group, The Disability Law Center, published a report alleging that students were slapped, punched, shoved and restrained by school officials and often left with bruises and scratches.

The state's report reiterates some of the center's accusations, again alleging Peck staff members improperly restrained and physically mistreated students.

The report also accuses senior school administrators of failing to respond to concerns about the alleged abuse, as well as failing to follow state protocol for reporting when restraints that lasted more than 20 minutes — or resulted in injury — occurred.

"Following a restraint, some families told investigators that they would come to the school for more details and left feeling disrespected by the staff in the program," the report says. It added that hearing parents' accounts of their experiences at Peck "was particularly distressing."

The report does not identify by name staff accused of mistreating students or failing to follow state protocol.

Local and state education officials said the school has made "significant progress" this year under new leadership and management.

Last April, the state's Board of Elementary and Secondary Education voted to place Holyoke Public Schools — a total of 10 schools, including Peck — under state receivership, labeling the district as "chronically under-performing." The school's receiver is former Wakefield Superintendent Stephen Zrike, who reports directly to Mitchell Chester, the board's commissioner.

So far, Holyoke Public Schools updated the district's policy about restraints and timeouts to align with the state's new regulations that went into effect on Jan. 1, the report says.

Before the end of the 2015-2016 school year, the district also hopes to hire a system-wide behavior specialist to "oversee the implementation of behavior de-escalation techniques," among other roles.

With reporting from the WBUR Newsroom and The Associated Press



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