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DA Announces Probe Of Abuse Allegations At Holyoke School

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Allegations that emotionally disabled children were abused by staff at a public school in western Massachusetts are being investigated by law enforcement.

Calling the findings in an investigative report by an advocacy group “troubling,” Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni announced Monday that his office will look into what went on in the Therapeutic Intervention Program at the Peck School in Holyoke.

" I am initiating through the state police detective unit attached to my office a thorough, fair, independent investigation into those allegations,'' Gulluni announced.

Special needs students in fourth through eighth grade were physically restrained multiple times, and some were slapped, tackled, and locked in unlit closets for misbehaving, according to the report issued by the Disability Law Center.

Gulluni, speaking with reporters Monday, said the first he and other members of law enforcement knew of the allegations was when the center’s report was made public last week.

"I am not adopting in anyway the findings of that report," said Gulluni. " That organization (Disability Law Center), while very much legitimate, is not a law enforcement organization and the nature and scope  of their investigation remains to some degree unknown."

State police detectives assigned to the D.A.’s office will conduct the investigation.    

        "The results of the investigation will be made known to the public ," he said.       

Gulluni urged parents of Peck School children and anyone else with information on the case to contact his office at 413-505-5993, or use the anonymous Text-a-Tip by texting “Crimes” or “274637” and beginning the message with “Solve.”

The detectives will also likely speak with a whistleblower who contacted the Disability Law Center.

Liza Hirsch, a former worker at the Peck School, told the Boston Globe she reported the abuse last March in a seven-page letter to then-Holyoke School Superintendent Sergio Paez.  Paez has been quoted in published reports as saying he could not substantiate the allegations.

At the time the allegations were brought to Paez’s attention, the Holyoke schools were on the brink of being placed into receivership by state education officials after years of low test scores and high dropout rates.

Stephen Zrike, the state-appointed receiver, said he heard about problems at the Peck School after he took charge of the school district in July and subsequently removed the principal, brought in an expert advisor, and implemented new procedures.

" I can assure people that what is currently happening in the program is not what is reflected in that report ( from the Disability Law Center),"  Zrike said in an interview last week.

Gulluni said he was unsure how long the investigation might take, and said it was premature to say if a grand jury might be convened.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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