HOLYOKE, Mass. (WWLP) – A December 2015 report revealed a disturbing pattern of abuse involving special needs students at a Holyoke school. Students were retrained more than 200 times, including one student who was restrained 50 times.

One student lost a tooth while restrained. There were also allegations of students being thrown to the floor, slapped and punched. The school’s former Superintendent, Sergio Paez, all but had a new job in Minneapolis, but it was never materialized due to this report.

In February of 2016, the state said there was a “systemic failure at the school.”

“One restraint is one restraint too many,” said Dr. Stephen Zrike, Holyoke Schools Receiver (Holyoke was placed into receivership by the state in 2015).

Dr. Zrike took over after these allegations were made. He said the reporting requirements for restraints were not clear; “There was not necessarily clarity on what needed to be reported, how it needed to be reported and to whom it needed to be reported.”

Aside from allegations of slapping and punching special needs students, at issue in this Disability Law Center report was the use of prone restraints.

“That would be a restraint where the student would be face down on the floor, while they’re being restrained,” said Russell Johnston, Senior Associate Commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education and a former Superintendent in West Springfield.

At the start of 2016, Massachusetts severely limited the use of prone restraints.

(Is the goal at the end of the day to have schools restraint free?) “It is absolutely the goal to either eliminate or drastically reduce the use of restraint in Massachusetts,” said Johnston.

(Is it realistic?) “It is absolutely,” said Johnston.

The 22News I-Team requested school records of restraints and complaints for western Massachusetts schools from the state. A request that should only take 10 days, took 8 months. The I-Team reviewed use of restraint reports from September 1, 2014 to December 31, 2015. In that time frame, there were 28 reports of restraints lasting longer than 5 minutes.

One student was restrained for 45 minutes. The use of a prone restraint on one student caused a swollen face. These same reports show teachers were punched in the eye and kicked in the throat.

The I-Team also uncovered 6 formal complaints against schools. The state school department confirmed that 5 of those schools did not follow regulations.

One Easthampton school was accused of restraining a student for an hour without logging the length of the restraints.

Mohawk Schools didn’t report when a student was injured. Those incidents happened before the Disability Law Center’s report on the Peck School.

(Do you think the investigation was a wake-up call to other schools in our area?) “Absolutely, by doing one investigation and making it as public as we did, spreads the word around safety for kids and the importance of following the law,” said Stephanie Krantz, Senior Attorney at the Disability Law Center.

Attorney Krantz said they are working closely with the Peck School in Holyoke and have noticed improvements. The District Attorney did not press charges against the staff, but several families have sued the school. That lawsuit is pending.

(Story Archive from February 16, 2017)