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Eagleton School Speaks Out About Abuse Allegations

This is a picture of Eagleton School attorney Eric MacLeish
Jim Levulis
Eagleton School attorney Eric MacLeish answered questions from reporters inside the school gym Wednesday.

Representatives for an all-male special needs school in Berkshire County spoke Wednesday after five staff members were charged in connection with physical abuse allegations. Law enforcement continues to investigate.The Eagleton School says it reported a complaint against a member of its staff for allegedly slapping a student in January, which spawned an investigation by local police and the Massachusetts Disabled Persons Protection Commission. Attorney Eric MacLeish has represented Eagleton, a residential school for males aged nine to 22 with autism spectrum disorders, for 30 years.

“If people are going to engage in improper behavior with a student, I’m hard pressed to understand why they’d do it when they’re being video monitored,” MacLeish said. “It doesn’t make sense. But we did have an incident that was of sufficient concern that we reported it in January. That led to Great Barrington Police and DPPC coming out here. We reported it.”

This past week, five staffers were charged in connection with allegations of abuse against students. Four face abuse charges while the fifth is accused of altering school video surveillance that captured an abuse and transferring staff who had made complaints about abuse against students. All five pleaded not guilty and were ordered to stay away from the Great Barrington campus. The defendants are due back in court March 10th. The allegations date back to August 2015. MacLeish says the January 1st incident the school reported is one of the charges. He says Eagleton is conducting its own investigation and expects to get school surveillance video taken by law enforcement back this week.

“Good people in these institutions sometimes despite great policies and procedures, unfortunate things will happen,” MacLeish said. “We don’t know enough to know whether they happened here. We will find out and we will tell the truth. If we take action we will let people know about it.”

MacLeish says the school faces no regulatory restrictions as a result of the charges and remains fully operational. He pointed out Eagleton and facilities like it face rigorous and unannounced inspections by state agencies. The school says the allegations involve three students in its autism center, who remain at the school, and likely occurred during the day.

Court documents say in December 2015, Peter Meadow kicked an Eagleton student. His attorney Lori Levinson is claiming self-defense.

“During his 120 days of employment there, he was the victim of assault and battery over 240 times,” Levinson said Monday. “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.”

A reporter asked Eagleton’s acting program director Mike Adams if there would be any instance in which a student in the autism center would pose a real threat to an employee.

“There would,” Adams said. “We have students with diagnosis and we know that students with diagnosis can be impulsive and they can show violent behavior, however we do try and we train diligently to respond to those appropriately.”

The school says staff who have contact with students are regularly trained in Non-Abusive Psychological and Physical Intervention, a program used in hospitals and other residential schools. Eagleton says it has 160 staff for 75 students from 12 states. The autism center has 15 students, most with one-on-one aides. While MacLeish said he hadn’t heard Levinson’s comments, he offered these thoughts.

“Anybody who accuses an Eagleton student of assaultive behavior is making a very, very serious mistake,” MacLeish said. “These are disabled individuals. It’s not their fault.”

Parents of current and former Eagleton students joined the press conference. The school says none of them are connected to the charges and asked that only first names be used. Mike, who lives in New Jersey, says Eagleton helped his son so much that he plans to attend a “normal” high school.

“[I] couldn’t believe the stories that I was reading,” Mike said. “I said this ‘This is not the family that I’ve known with my son.’ My son is right now 16 years of age. He was here for 18 months. This place saved his life, my life and my wife’s life.”

The charges were made after about 50 local, state and federal law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at the 40-acre campus in Great Barrington Saturday night.

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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