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Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Full Investigation Needed in Holyoke

From The Boston Globe

By the Editorial Board
December 18, 2015

A recent report by a federally-funded watchdog group painted a disturbing picture of abuse and neglect of students with disabilities at the Peck Full Service Community School in Holyoke. The report, prepared by the Disability Law Center, describes kids being thrown to the floor for refusing to move, as well as the use of illegal restraints.

As the Hampden County district attorney investigates the allegations, the situation raises grave questions of accountability, not only at the Peck school, but also at other programs charged with the care of some of the most vulnerable people in the Commonwealth.

It’s clear some of the abuse could have been stopped earlier, if only parents had gotten the ear of local and state education officials. The Commonwealth must answer a fundamental question: why did it take an advocacy group to bring the allegations to light?

After all, the state’s department of education has a system in place to ensure compliance with special-education laws and regulations. There is also a form that parents can use to submit complaints. But forms and compliance guidelines seem like pallid remedies for such dire cases. The situation at Peck is educational malpractice in the extreme; the system is clearly broken.

At the Peck school, 90 percent of the general student population is Hispanic, and most of the alleged victims are Hispanic. Parents, like Jorge Morales and Gladys Caraballo, felt disenfranchised and ignored. Morales and Caraballo’s 13-year-old son joined the program at the Peck in the fall of 2014. He’s been diagnosed with ADHD and Tourette syndrome, and suffers from panic and anxiety attacks.

The parents, who speak limited English, say trouble started soon — their son was so depressed and distraught that he wanted to stop going to school. They started seeing bruises all over his arms and neck, which they documented with photos. Morales says school records show that his son was restrained 50 times.

The parents eventually met with former Holyoke superintendent Sergio Paez in the fall of 2014.

“We told Paez there had already been many incidents with our son, but he didn’t show a willingness to resolve the issue,” Morales said in Spanish. “When we showed him the photos with our son’s bruises, he said the pictures looked Photoshopped. As a father, I felt like trash.”

These allegations are grounds for dismissal, and the Holyoke school district, under state control since the spring, should move swiftly if they’re substantiated. Consequences for program staff found to have injured children must be firm.

But there’s a larger monitoring issue for the state, which needs to reform and ramp up its oversight of special-education programs at public schools all over the Commonwealth. Many advocates of students with disabilities believe irregularities are widespread, but that no one is paying attention.

The state must conduct a full investigation in Holyoke, with recommendations for training, programming, and a clear system of enforcement in order to ensure the safety of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable schoolchildren.

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