Disability Law Center Investigation Report: Peck School, Holyoke, Massachusetts Finds Abuse and Neglect in Therapeutic Intervention Program for Students with Disabilities
The Disability Law Center (DLC) recently released its investigation report on the treatment of children in the Therapeutic Intervention Program (TIP) at the Peck School in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The report shows disturbing findings of “abuse and neglect, improper practices, and unsafe conditions” and that “[t]he District must take immediate corrective measures to prevent further harm to these children.”
The DLC, led by Executive Director Christine Griffin (who also serves as Chair to AAPD’s Board of Directors), is an organization “authorized to investigate incidents of alleged abuse, neglect, and civil rights violations of persons with disabilities within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”
This report is important not only for its findings about the Peck School, but because it is highly likely that the situation it describes is far from unique.
The study had been a long time coming; former employees and local social service agencies had voiced concerns about the program. In its investigation, DLC found “a comprehensive letter” by a former employee which “outlined in great detail the concerning practices in the TIP program and multiple incidents of abuse, neglect, and conditions/practices that have put children at risk.”
The findings of this investigation are particularly concerning because they indicate that a program meant to help a vulnerable population was instead causing the students even greater harm. TIP “is supposed to provide a therapeutic educational program for children in the 4th-8th grade with emotional and behavioral disabilities.” As the report articulates, “[e]very student record we reviewed confirms that the child has an emotional disability, many with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) … To put this population in a setting where they are subject to violent and excessive restraints, greatly exacerbates their disabilities and is in direct violation of the stated mission of the program.”
The investigation found numerous examples of violations of state and federal law, not to mention ethics and the very mission of the program. Those findings included:
Improper restraint using excessive force
By law, “physical restraint can only be used when non-physical interventions would not be effective [and] the student’s behavior must pose a threat of imminent, serious, physical harm to self and/or others.” The investigation “found that TIP has a consistent practice of restraining children using excessive force for reasons that do not comply with the restrictions imposed by State and Federal laws.” The report describes a “culture of violence” among the staff that is deeply concerning.
Failure to report extended restraint or restraint injury
“Schools are required to report to [the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE)] when a restraint has resulted in a serious injury to a student or when the restraint has lasted longer than 5 minutes,” but the investigation found that “many students have been injured during improper restraints at TIP and have been subject to extended restraints that were not reported to DESE.”
Improper seclusion of students
Seclusion restraint is defined as “physically confining a student alone in a room or limited space without access to school staff” and is prohibited in public programs. Nonetheless, the investigation found many incidents, including “that on at least three occasions, a teacher put children in a locked closet and turned out the lights.”
Besides seclusion restraint, “TIP students are secluded generally from the social and educational opportunities provided at the Peck school” even though many students might benefit from integration into the general population.
Failing to provide a safe environment
The investigation found issues with the upkeep, and even the layout, of the building and classrooms and found that “these safety concerns made us question the decision to place TIP in this environment.”
Failing to carry out individual program plans
Students in the TIP program “are children that need therapeutic services and supports to make effective progress” but “the staff lacks the training and tools to address behaviors and … they don’t have the necessary strategies to handle the children and to de-escalate conflict.”
On the educational front, “[m]any parents reported that IEPs [Individualized Education Program] are not being followed and that their children are not receiving an education.” During site visits, the investigators “observed very little academics being performed.”
TIP staff set students on the “well-worn path from the schoolhouse to the jailhouse” by routinely calling the police when students “are in crisis and in need of mental health supports.” The consequences of this school to prison path can be seen in the recently released Bureau of Justice Statistics National Inmate Survey, which indicates that about a third of prison and jail inmates reported a disability.
TIP has implemented several corrective measures, but DLC “continue[s] to have concerns about the extent of the abuse and neglect … found at the school.” DLC has demanded numerous corrective actions and “will be shifting to a monitoring phase” to assess and ensure compliance. After twelve months, DLC will determine if any further action/monitoring is required.”
Although this problematic program has been investigated and corrective measures are being taken, it is unlikely that it is alone in its practices. Lack of training and resources for staff responsible for any children, especially children with the additional needs often found in these programs, can lead to misunderstandings, mistakes, and bad practices which may escalate to the abuse and neglect found here. Parents and professionals should ask themselves, “is there a school like this in my school district?”
Disability Law Center, Disability Law Center Investigation Report: Peck School, Holyoke Massachusetts, 2015, Boston, MA
Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Disabilities Among Prison and Jail Inmates, 2011–12, 2015, Washington, DC.