Liza Hirsch began work at the Peck Full Service Community School in Holyoke last fall, excited by its model of involving families and community partners in learning.
She found instead a toxic environment where children with emotional and behavioral disabilities were berated, physically restrained — even hauled away in handcuffs by police, she said Thursday.
Within six months, Hirsch had quit her job and become a whistle-blower, documenting abuses that drove two separate investigations, led to policy changes, and threaten to torpedo the job prospects of the Western Massachusetts city’s former school superintendent.
The allegations about the school, which serves fourth- through eighth-graders, came to light Wednesday with the release of a disturbing report from the Disability Law Center, a nonprofit group authorized by the state to investigate abuse against people with disabilities.
“These are some of the most fragile, most vulnerable children in our society,” Hirsch said. “They have lived through abuse. They live day in and day out, many of them, in poverty. . . . That’s what’s so heartbreaking about this.”
Most of the alleged physical abuse was inflicted upon children in the school’s Therapeutic Intervention Program for students with emotional and behavioral disabilities by staff members responsible for calming children who act out. But too often, they escalate conflicts through harsh language and rough contact, parents told the Globe.
Jorge Morales, 46, said his son, who is hyperactive, described how the staffers roughly grabbed him and dragged him on the floor from one room to another.
“My son just didn’t want to go to school,” Morales said, speaking in Spanish during a telephone interview. “He didn’t want to eat. We were suffering so much, crying ourselves.”
Under state education regulations, students can be physically restrained only when nonphysical interventions will not work and the behavior endangers that student or others.
Morales and other parents said that when they reported the violent treatment to former principal Justin Cotton, who led the Peck School for the 2014-2015 school year, they never saw him take action, and the brutality continued.
Cotton could not be reached for comment Thursday. According to a LinkedIn profile registered in his name, he is now an assistant principal at a Holyoke elementary school.
Hirsch said she went repeatedly to Cotton with reports that teachers, parents, and children brought to her of students being restrained, tackled, and even slapped.
Cotton would say he was investigating, Hirsch said, but she rarely ……..
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