Eagleton School parents tell children's stories of alleged abuse

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GREAT BARRINGTON, MASS. — After 50 law enforcement personnel descended upon Eagleton School on Saturday to investigate claims of abuse upon students by staff, several parents told of encounters involving their sons.

"This guy was huge, and he fought [my stepson Michael] to the ground and into a restraint and landed on top of him," Jessica Kinney-O'Shea of Pownal, Vt., told The Eagle. "It was incredibly traumatic for him. He remembers minute-for-minute what happened."

The parents detailed stories of alleged abuse by Eagleton staffers — typically involving rough restraint tactics that led to injury and even hospitalization.

While it's not clear if the parents' claims were related to the arrests Sunday of five Eagleton staffers, the parents put forth examples of their sons' experiences at the school.

Located on a 40-acre campus in the southern Berkshire County town of Great Barrington, Eagleton School is a private, year-round residential school for boys and young men with special needs including autism and Asperger syndrome and other cognitive, behavioral, and developmental disabilities. It opened in 1977.

Berkshire District Attorney David F. Capeless, however, called it "a terrible situation" and promised to seek justice for the victims. Four staff members — ranging in age from 34 to 54 — pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges that included assault and battery on a disabled person. A fifth staff member pleaded not guilty to charges of intimidation of a witness and obstruction of justice for allegedly destroying video surveillance footage and arranging work assignments to keep staff from reporting assaults.

Chief staff members — including Eagleton founder and executive director Bruce Bona — did not respond to emails seeking comment.

Kinney-O'Shea's son Michael, 14, suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and mood disorder. Following the above incident, he suffered a broken sternum which did not receive medical attention for another two weeks, despite the teen's immediate complaints to staff, Kinney-O'Shea said. Staff also failed to notify Kinney-O'Shea of the injury until the hospital trip.

"We were supposed to be notified, but didn't find out until two weeks later," she said.

When Kinney-O'Shea finally filed a complaint with Massachusetts Department of Children and Families regarding the staffer's behavior toward her stepson, she said Eagleton School Program Director James Yeaman attempted to justify the actions against Michael.

The staff member responsible was ultimately banned from working on Michael's unit due to the child's complaint.

According to Kinney-O'Shea, the staffer responded to the discipline by "going into Michael's room while he was sleeping, throwing clothes all over him, and smashing his television and DVD player."

She subsequently learned the staffer was a convicted felon who was later terminated by the school.

"That was the last straw," Kinney-O'Shea said. "We pulled him in July of 2014."

Kinney-O'Shea detailed other peculiarities as well. She claimed Pryjma deleted the video surveillance of Michael's restraint leading to his sternum injury, and the report on the incident falsely stated that the two had tripped due to the "aggression" of the 14-year-old.

One of Michael's Eagleton School peers Kinney-O'Shea observed suffered a broken collarbone, and in another instance she saw a student pinned down in the school's gravel driveway for several hours by a staff member.

Michael's total stay at the Eagleton School was six months.

Heather Haywood-Ward of Pittsfield has a son still in the program, though she's questioned the school for months on similar grounds.

"I've gone to see him and he's had black eyes, fat lips, rug burns, broken blood vessels," Haywood-Ward said. "I asked about the injuries and was told he was put in a restraint. It got pretty bad and he started slamming his head off the ground. He's never done that in his life. He's never slammed his face intentionally on anything."

Jesse Haywood, her son, just turned 18 and is autistic.

Haywood-Ward added, "These types of restraints are illegal in Massachusetts. All that are allowed are passive restraints, meaning nobody gets hurt."

Haywood-Ward was distressed because she visited the school on Sunday to visit her son Jesse but staff blocked her from doing so.

"I just want to see my son and know he's OK," she said.

Capeless, who oversaw the raid, praised the work of lead investigators Jonathan Finnerty, a Great Barrington police officer, and Gregory Denys, a Massachusetts state trooper.

"Their persistence and professionalism uncovered this terrible situation and will allow us to seek justice on behalf of these vulnerable victims," Capeless said.

Personnel from the State Department of Early Education and Care accompanied investigators and were on scene to ensure the safety of the students and the continued, proper operation of the school, according to the DA's office.


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