Special needs children in a school under the supervision of Minneapolis’ newly named superintendent were slapped by staff and improperly restrained, according to an investigation made public this week by the Massachusetts Disability Law Center, a private nonprofit advocacy group.
The report, made public Wednesday, said students in a special education program at the Peck School in Holyoke, Mass., were restrained more than 50 times. There were other situations in which students were “thrown to the floor and slapped.” Others were pulled out of chairs for refusing to get up.
The report concerns incidents during the tenure of Sergio Paez, who was named Monday as the next superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools.
Paez said he was aware of the allegations. He said the investigation is the result “of an allegation that someone is making. The state was on top of it. I was on top of it, and that’s the end.”
The report came just 48 hours after the Minneapolis school board picked Paez from three finalists to lead the district. Before a contract is signed board members Tracine Asberry and Josh Reimnitz are going to visit the Holyoke district. They are expected to be there at the end of next week.
“I am just thankful that we are doing our due diligence and doing a site visit,” said Carla Bates, a Minneapolis board member who did not vote for Paez. She said she was “sick to my stomach.”
Amy Moore, the attorney for the Minneapolis district, said the district takes the allegations seriously and is in contact with Massachusetts department of education.
“These are allegations by an advocacy group,” Moore said. “We are still going to do our due diligence.”
The Disability Law Center began investigating in April, after a Peck teacher said her complaints to the district were not addressed. Peck is a K-8 public school that includes a program for students with emotional behavior disability.
Stanley J. Eichner, the litigation director of the Disability Law Center in Massachusetts, said the findings were some of the worse abuses they have seen of students. “It was a really an out of control situation,” he said.
‘No evidence of neglect’
Paez said about a year ago, a parent snapped photos of a child’s bruised and marked arm and complained to the principal and Paez that the student had been abused. Paez said he launched an internal investigation, using the district’s attorneys, and found there was no abuse.
“There was no evidence of neglect,” he said.
Paez said the bruises and marks were the result of a physical restraint on the student.
The use of physical restraints on special education students is controversial, with some advocates saying they are often used incorrectly and can cause great harm. Under Massachusetts law, physical restraint can be used as a last resort and only when a student’s behavior poses a serious threat to the student or someone else. The law also states restraint cannot be used as punishment.
The school did not report the restraints or their related injuries to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, as required by law, the investigation alleges.
The Disability Law Center cites a report by the state’s department of education that found evidence of improper restrains and seclusion of students at the same school. The department issued a finding of non-compliance in July after finding evidence that restraints were not used properly, the Law Center states.
The Star Tribune has requested a copy of the department of education’s findings.
The investigation uncovered a systemic culture of abuse, not just a few incidents, said Eichner.
“It’s widespread enough to ask, if you knew, why didn’t you do anything, and if you didn’t, why didn’t you know,” Eichner said.
Paez became the superintendent in Holyoke, Mass., the most underperforming district in the state, in 2013. In one year, the district saw increases in graduation rates and test scores. But at the end of Paez’s second year, the state took over the district and put the schools under the control of a receiver. The takeover occurred just a week after the Disability Law Center launched its investigation.
After the law center released its report, Mitchell Chester, Massachusetts’ education commissioner said the department has already begun restructuring the schools, including replacing the school leadership and reducing the number of separate classes for students with disabilities.
In a statement, Stephen Zrike, the receiver in Holyoke, called the report “troubling” and said the findings outlined “some of the same concerns that people repeatedly shared with me in the meetings I held with families, students and staff across Holyoke this summer and fall.”