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Friday, May 6, 2016

Nine More Eagleton School Staffers Charged with Abuse, Intimidation

From the Berkshire Edge

By Heather Bellow
May 2, 2016

NOTE: Attorney Dan Heffernan at Kotin, Crabtree & Strong is representing a number of families who have had children at Eagleton in pursuing civil claims. Dan has brought numerous civil rights and abuse cases on behalf of children and adults with disabilities through the years. You can reach him at 617-227-7031 or by email to


Great Barrington, Massachusetts — A chilling set of criminal abuse complaints led to another eight arrests of former Eagleton School employees who were arraigned Monday (May 2) in Southern Berkshire District Court, and an arrest warrant is out for a ninth, all for abuse of the school’s disabled boys and young men, and attempts to cover up incidents and intimidate witnesses.

Martin Schmitt, Derrick Saunders, Damian Sinclair, Alexis Lopez, Michael Bell, Christopher Welch, Erik Williams and Justin Senecal were arraigned, each on multiple counts of assault and battery on a disabled person, and in some cases, assault with a dangerous weapon and intimidation of a witness.

Police describe widespread eye-poking, fingers twisted until breaking, lacerations from slamming heads and throwing, bone-breaking punches, pinching, cutting, and other injuries, much of it done while the victims were held in restraints.

Isaac Harris-El, who has not yet been arrested, faces 15 counts, the most of any of the defendants, for assault and battery, including causing serious bodily injury to several teenaged students, breaking bones, and in one case running a key down a student’s arm, leaving a 2-inch scar. The criminal complaint against Harris-El says he intimidated students with threats if he caught them “snitching,” and accused students of lying to clinicians about him. Police say he told students, “whatever happens in our dorm, stays in our dorm.”

And this Thursday (May 5) in Berkshire Superior Court, James Yeaman, the school’s former Program Director, will be the first administrator to face criminal charges. Total arrests for a variety of charges is now at 16. The school had 160 employees, and 72 students at the time of the first arrests.

Bruce Bona. Multiple to calls to Executive Director Bruce Bona’s
Southfield home have not been returned. It is unclear
whether Bona will face charges as well.

The school for boys and men aged 9-22 was eventually shut down in March after a Great Barrington Police Department investigation led to involvement by the Southern Berkshire District Attorney’s Office, the Massachusetts State Police, and the F.B.I. A handful of staff were arrested in January, and several more last month.

The investigation blew the lid off what appears to have been a pattern of violence against students by some employees, and a culture and code at the school, described by the state as having a “systemic propensity” to cover up abuse.

The criminal complaint in this latest batch of arrests describes harrowing violence. Police say Schmitt, 46, of Lenox, for instance, dragged a 17-year-old student described as suffering from “mild mental retardation” among other diagnoses into a kitchen where he “twisted his right pointer finger until it was fractured,” and threatened to break all his other fingers “if you keep this up.”

He poked another teenaged student in the eye, and attempted, using his cell phone, to poke out the eye of another student on a different occasion. The student told police “Schmitt used to poke a lot of the kids in the eye.”

Police say Saunders, 43, of Pittsfield, put a teenaged student in a restraint and dragged him to a radiator which he “slammed his head off of,” causing a laceration that required staples and a partial head shaving.

Damian Sinclair, 25, of Albany, New York, is accused of throwing a student against a wall and holding him there by the neck, and on another occasion throwing the same student onto his bed where he hit his head on a wall and a dresser. Police also say Sinclair punched a student in the face during a restraint. The student was taken to Fairview Hospital to close the wound on his eyebrow.

And Sinclair was also accused of throwing another student across a hallway; the student landed on his head and back.

Police say Alexis Lopez, 23, of Pittsfield, poked a student in the eye during a restraint and said “do you want some blood?” and also punched him in the side of the face, breaking his orbital bone. Lopez, according to the complaint, also poked another student in the eye during a restraint on multiple occasions, one of which resulted in a subconjunctval hemorrhage that required care at Fairview Hospital.

And another student, police say, was also poked in both eyes by Lopez after he put him in a headlock, in which he also had difficulty breathing.

The student told police Lopez “learned to poke students in the eye from another staff member.” Police say Lopez poked another student in the eye and dug his fingernails into his face, and on another occasion gave him a bloody nose after slamming his head off the ground, which happened on several occasions. Lopez is also accused of punching another student in the nose several times while in a restraint.

Police say Michael Bell, 45, of Watervliet, New York, along with Harris-El, 41, also of Watervliet, punched a student in the head after throwing him into a van and pulling his shirt up over his head. The assault bloodied the student, an 18-year old who at the time suffered from traumatic brain injury and epilepsy.

Juan Pablo Lopez-Lucas leaves Southern Berkshire District
Court in Great Barrington after his arraignment in February.

Christopher Welch, 25, also of Watervliet, is accused of punching a student twice in the head, and during the same incident, police say Eric Williams grabbed the student by the throat and “threw him over a porch railing causing [redacted] to land on his shoulder and injuring it.”

Police say Justin Senecal, 28, of Palmer, along with Juan Pablo Lopez-Lucas, who was arrested in January, “forcibly put excessive pressure” on a student’s arm, fracturing it. That student, along with other diagnoses, is legally blind.

Police also say that when the Disabled Persons Protection Commission investigated this incident, they were told the classroom surveillance camera “was not functioning at the time,” and that this incident happened less than four months after Senecal was involved in a restraint that led to another arm fracture.

Debra Davis
The school had 24-hour surveillance cameras in all buildings, and one of the first employees to be arrested was Debra Davis, who is accused of tampering with video film.

The school used the NAPPI (Non-Abusive Psychological and Physical Intervention) restraint technique, the goal of which is to avoid restraints altogether, according to several former employees interviewed by the Edge in February.

NAPPI President David Farrell was on the Eagleton Board as a restraint consultant, and Bona owns shares in the company. Farrell was removed from the board as a condition of the school’s state enforced probation that began right after the investigation started.

Some employees told The Edge in February that the school was the best possible setting for students with a range of diagnoses including schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder, abuse, neglect, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism, and various intellectual “disabilities.”

Chad Astore, who when he spoke to the Edge, had just been made interim Quality Control director when the school went under state oversight, told The Edge that working closely with the students required a special set of skills and a certain temperament, as it is very challenging work for low pay.

Eagleton’s interim Quality Control director Chad Astore. 

He explained that most of the students were large young men who reacted to situations with violent outbursts themselves, or would flee from the school, one with a busy road running through the property.

In February the school’s clinical director Maureen Pryjma told the Edge many students were “physically, sexually, verbally abused, and neglected” before they came here.

The tuition of about $145,000 per year per student was paid, in most cases, by school districts and the state.

The investigation is ongoing.

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