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5 Plead Not Guilty In Connection To Private Berkshire School Abuse Allegations

The five people charged in connection to allegations of abuse at a private special needs school in Berkshire County pleaded not guilty Monday morning.The five Eagleton School staffers were in Southern Berkshire District Court for their arraignments after being arrested Sunday. Brian Puntin, 47, of Lenox Dale, 51-year-old Peter Meadow of Lenox, 54-year-old James Swift of Pittsfield, 34-year-old Juan Pablo Lopez-Lucas of Pittsfield and 41-year-old Debra Davis of Great Barrington all pleaded not guilty. They were released and ordered to stay away from the Great Barrington school. All five are due back in court March 10.

Puntin and Swift are charged with one count each of assault and battery of a disabled person.

Meadow and Lopez-Lucas are charged with one count of assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon and one count of assault and battery of a disabled person.

Davis is charged with two counts of intimidation of a witness or other person.

The arrests came after about 50 local, state and federal law enforcement officers executed a search warrant Saturday at the private residential school for boys with special needs. Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh says the students are in good shape.

“It’s a small town,” Walsh told reporters after the arraignments. “It’s just close knit. It’s too bad. It’s unfortunate. But you know, we’re going to work through it and we’ll see what happens.”

Court documents say in August 2015, Lopez-Lucas struck a disabled student’s head on a picnic table. In September 2015, Puntin assaulted a disabled student at the school, according to the documents. The papers say in December 2015 Meadow kicked a disabled student. On January 1, 2016 Swift assaulted a disabled student, again according to the probable cause report. And in January 2016, the documents say, Davis knowingly and willingly destroyed video evidence of the assault carried out by Swift. Davis also moved staff who had made complaints of assaults by other staff to different school buildings to keep them from reporting the assaults. Attorney Lori Levinson is representing Peter Meadow, who worked as a 1-on-1 counselor and is now a classroom aide at Eagleton.

“He’s feeling horrible,” Levinson told reporters outside the court house. “He didn’t do anything. He has been an employee of the Eagleton School for 120 days. During his 120 days of employment there, he was the victim of assault and battery over 240 times. The Eagleton School was an unsafe work environment. The children that they deal with are violent. They’re medicated. And the staff is woefully short-staffed. They are put in a situation where they are at times, frequently required to defend themselves against violent attacks by some of the students there.”

Claiming self-defense, Levinson says Meadow was kicked, punched, shoved and bitten on the hand, drawing blood.

“My understanding is that the Eagleton School is chockfull of video cameras and all of the acts should be on videotape, which will definitely serve to vindicate at least my client,” Levinson said. “I can’t speak for anybody else.”

The four other defendants said in court that they intend to hire their own attorneys.

Levinson says there is documentation of some of the assaults against Meadow, but added that Meadow explained that had he documented every assault he wouldn’t have been able to do any work. Levinson says it’s her understanding the five staffers have been placed on leave.

Attorney Eric MacLeish is representing Eagleton. He says the school has a lot to say about the matter and will do so Tuesday or Wednesday. MacLeish represented victims of sexual abuse carried out by clergy in Boston, as chronicled in the film Spotlight.

Berkshire District Attorney David Capeless says the overall matter remains an active investigation.

“With any ongoing investigation such as this we may well be scratching the surface,” Capeless said after the arraignments Monday. “We don’t know. But, obviously that is one of our primary concerns to discover whether or not there are additional incidents and additional victims, as well as potential perpetrators.”

Capeless is asking anyone with information to call Massachusetts State Police at 413-499-1112.

Members of the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care have been at the school since Saturday night. They are overseeing and monitoring the program’s operations to ensure the children’s safety. In a statement released by the Berkshire District Attorney’s office, EEC Commissioner Thomas Weber says his agency is conducting a joint investigation of the school with the Department of Children and Families. Weber says EEC will take further action as warranted.

According to its website, Eagleton, which opened in 1977, provides year-round residential, psycho-educational treatment for boys and young men with autism, Asperger’s Syndrome along with other disorders or disabilities. The school’s website says it has 24/7 real-time cameras in all common areas on the 40-acre campus. Eagleton uses a behavior management/intervention model called Non-Abusive Psychological and Physical Intervention. The Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care and the state Department of Education have approved the program. NAPPI Inc. started in 1977 and its website lists a mailing address of Sheffield, Massachusetts, which borders Great Barrington to the south. President and CEO David Farrell declined to comment on the allegations surrounding Eagleton.

Jim is WAMC’s Associate News Director and hosts WAMC's flagship news programs: Midday Magazine, Northeast Report and Northeast Report Late Edition. Email: jlevulis@wamc.org
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