New report: Improve info sharing to lower risks at residential schools

In the wake of alleged abuses at private schools for children with mental disabilities, a new report by the state Office of the Child Advocate calls for better methods for collecting and sharing information about risk and safety factors at residential schools.

OCA logoChild Advocate Maria Mossaides released an 82-page report this week, written to address concerns following alleged abuse last year at several schools including the Eagleton School in Great Barrington, a private residential school that enrolled boys with mental disabilities, after several former staff members were charged with assault and intimidation.

Mossaides said that an interagency group ­– including staff from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the Department of Early Education and Care and the Department of Children and Families — have been working since then to improve information sharing and increase oversight to better protect some 900 Massachusetts children with severe disabilities who live in 53 residential programs across the state.

While immediate steps were taken to share information, the group recommended longer-term efforts to coordinate oversight and monitor tax-funded schools hampered by historical lack of coordination. In addition, the group now plans to focus on other risk factors, including high staff turnover, schools’ capacity to serve children with complex needs and oversight of other public and private day schools.

“The implementation of these recommendations will improve our current practices to ensure critical information about safety,’’ Mossaides said, adding. “Our monitoring and response activities will be strengthened.”

Mossaides said on Thursday that she has set up meetings with lawmakers and industry officials to discuss the report and see if changes require legislative action. State lawmakers in the Joint Committee on Education have held several hearings examining finances and oversight of private day and residential schools that care for children with disabilities.

In August, The Eye reported on years of state investigators’ reports of improper restraints, runaways and improper sexual relations between staff and students at the Chamberlain International School in Middleborough. The school has said it is has worked with the state in improving safety and is in compliance with regulations.

James V. Major, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of 766 Approved Private Schools that care for students with disabilities, praised the report, which he said addressed many of the issues facing private special education schools, including staff high turnover and a growing population of students with complex disabilities.

To read the report, click here.