In 'Downward Spiral,' Special Education School Closes After Abuse Allegations

Sep 19, 2018

Tri-County Schools is closed this school year after 30 years in business. The reasons became clear in August when the special education school was hit with abuse allegations.

Dan Glaun, a reporter with MassLive, wrote about the program in a piece published this week. He describes a school plagued by uncertified teachers and under-staffed support personnel who endured pay cuts, while top administrators received salary increases.

Kari Njiiri, NEPR: We're talking about a program that had been a model for the region's special education schools. What happened?

Dan Glaun, MassLive: It's a complicated question. The Disability Law Center -- which is an agency that investigates abuse against disabled people in Massachusetts -- puts out this report finding all of these allegations of abuse, of improper restraints, of basically keeping troubled kids locked in time-out rooms for hours at a time. I spoke to 10, 11 former staff, students and parents, basically to try to answer that question.

And the gist is that sometime around 2013, what had been a very stable program was basically thrown into turmoil. Long-term staff left. They were replaced by new people who did not receive the proper training, who felt completely unsupported by the administration.

And almost directly after that, you start seeing this massive increase in reports of violence, of improper restraints, leading up to this investigation and the closure.

So what happened in 2013?

What former staff told me is that the longtime head of the school, named Stephen Dion, was asked to leave, and he was replaced by a succession of short-lived directors.

Staff had their pay cut. Some were asked to reapply for their jobs. And there was just massive turnover, through some combination of layoffs and former veteran staff feeling sort of disenchanted with the way the school was going.

You also mention that officials blame declining revenues for the turnover.

Yes, when I spoke with the head of the nonprofit that runs this organization -- a man named Paul Rilla, who's been doing social service work in the Pioneer Valley for about 40 years now -- he suggested that this is part of a broader structural problem that these schools are facing.

There are all of these private schools that basically handle special education students, or students with behavioral issues, that public schools can't. The state basically pays for them to go to these private schools.

But these schools, all over the state, have been seeing declines in revenue and enrollment, basically because public schools have been implementing these programs to better handle severe cases of learning disabilities and emotional problems. And so there are fewer students to go to these schools, less state revenue, less ability to recruit teachers, and that's sort of a downward spiral.

The staff I talked to said that while that may be the case, there were definitely particular problems at the administration in Tri-County that made it far worse than elsewhere. I mean, there are plenty of these schools in western Massachusetts that have not had this sort of issue.

So what was unique about Tri-County Schools?

What the staff told me was that when they raised concerns, they were not answered.

I spoke to a former instructional aide who said that she was placed in a classroom -- she's not a certified teacher -- responsible for leading a class with seven students, was not given any lesson plans. That they hired substitute teachers, basically, to just fill out the numbers, so they were meeting staffing ratios, who just sat there and didn't do very much.

And that staff were repeatedly injured -- this was not a one-way process. These are people who apparently were not entirely prepared to deal with these kids, and when they asked for more support, they simply didn't get it.

What's the future for Tri-County Schools? Are there plans to reopen?

It is unknown. Rilla told me that they have not made a final decision. They hope to reopen.

I spoke to the State Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, who said that if they wanted to, they would have to pass a pretty stringent re-licensing or re-certification process.

And the agency that did the investigation said that they'll be contacting them sometime in the next year to try to see if they come up with some plan to fix these issues, and get back on the right track.