Eagleton School Fires Employees, Hires Consultant Amid Abuse Allegations
The Berkshire County special needs school connected to abuse allegations says it has hired an outside consultant to review its programs. The Eagleton School has also terminated two of the five people charged in connection.Executive Director Bruce Bona says the remaining three who were arrested are on leave and he does not intend to bring them back at this time. He also says none of the 15 “suspicious people” identified by the Berkshire District Attorney’s office are currently at the residential school for males aged 9 to 22 with autism spectrum disorders in Great Barrington. Five of the 15 had been terminated before charges were brought against five staffers last month. Four people were recently terminated as well.
“We’re unable to investigative ourselves because the DA has been concerned that it could interfere with his investigation,” Bona said Thursday. “We are eager to be able to investigate ourselves of stuff that we knew, violation of corporate policy. We’ve terminated four employees. Two were administrators and two were other staff.”
Bona says two of the people he mentioned, one administrator and one other staff person, are among the five Eagleton workers who pleaded not guilty to charges in connection to abuse allegations. Brain Puntin and James Swift are each charged with one count of assault and battery of a disabled person. Peter Meadow and Juan Pablo Lopez-Lucas face that same charge and assault and battery by means of a dangerous weapon. Law enforcement says Meadow kicked a student and Lopez-Lucas slammed the same student’s head on a picnic table.
Debra Davis is charged with two counts of intimidation of a witness. Court documents say Davis destroyed video of the assault carried out by Swift. Davis also moved workers who had complained about assaults by other staff to different school buildings to keep them from reporting the assaults. Eagleton’s attorney Eric MacLeish said during a press conference earlier this month that Davis worked as the administrator on duty. Bona adds one of the people terminated, who he says was not arrested, was a program quality investigator.
“That person is responsible for looking at film, following state procedures, following the mandated corporate procedures that we have and reporting to numerous agencies like EEC [Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care] and social services,” said Bona.
In addition, Eagleton has brought on the former head of the Doctor Franklin Perkins School in Lancaster, Mass. as a consultant. Working two days a week, Charles Conroy will review Eagleton’s clinical, educational and residential dimensions. The school has hired the agency Non-Abusive Psychological and Physical Intervention International to assess Eagleton’s training and retrain staff.
The school says it’s doing this partly in light of new state regulations on restraints that went into effect this year. Eagleton has been using NAPPI for 20 years. The school points out Bona is a minority shareholder in NAPPI. Bona plans to remain in his role throughout the DA’s investigation, but will not participate in Eagleton’s own investigation. He says the school is in the process of hiring more staff to fill the roles left open as a result of the recent actions. Bona adds the moves being made are in support of the roughly 150 staff members.
“Our goal about it, in very difficult times, is to clean up whatever issues that there are, to move with that and to be an enhanced therapeutic place when we’re done,” said Bona.
The school currently has 73 students. One student was recently discharged for ordinary reasons while another student out on medical leave has not returned following the charges, according to Bona. Asked to verify some portions of this story, the office of Berkshire DA David Capeless said Thursday simply that the investigation continues. Capeless spoke with WAMC days after 50 local, state and federal law enforcement officers executed a search warrant at Eagleton’s 40-acre campus in January.
“With any ongoing investigation such as this we may well be scratching the surface,” Capeless said after the arraignments February 1. “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.”
The Eagleton School has said its own report of a complaint against a staff member for allegedly slapping a student in January spawned an investigation by Great Barrington police and state regulators. The five people charged are due back in court March 10.