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 saw anyone disciplined. One teacher who locked students in a dark closet at least three times was placed on leave for a few days but returned to the classroom, Hirsch said.
Finally, in early March, Hirsch resigned and sent a seven-page letter documenting the allegations, with pages of evidence attached, to Sergio Paez, then Holyoke’s school superintendent. Like Cotton, Paez told Hirsch he was investigating.
Paez lost his job after Massachusetts education officials voted in April to place the district under state control. On Monday, Paez was named the head of Minneapolis schools.
It is unclear whether the allegations will affect his hiring. But Carla Bates, a Minneapolis school board member who did not vote for Paez told the Star-Tribune she was “sick to my stomach” after learning of the report. An attorney for Minneapolis Public Schools did not return calls seeking comment.
Paez said in a phone interview Thursday that he had not read the Disability Law Center report because he was traveling, but he defended Holyoke’s handling of the allegations.
“This was a very serious issue for me and the district,” Paez said. “We investigated, talked to the principal and staff, and interviewed students. Ultimately, no evidence of abuse was found.”
He said the school system abided by the regulation limiting the use of restraint on students. But he added that a separate state investigation led to recommendations urging more training on using restraints and said that training took place.
Mitchell Chester, state commissioner of elementary and secondary education, said in a letter to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education on Wednesday that his department shares concerns expressed in the law center’s report and has begun reworking the Peck School program.
The department has replaced the school’s leaders, reduced the use of separate classes for students with disabilities, and brought in outside advisers to guide change.
But already, some parents say they have pulled their children out of the Peck School for their safety and comfort.
One of those parents, Wandaliz Sepulveda, said school officials began calling her regularly soon after her son, Ivan Gonzalez, 12, started attending the Peck School last fall, telling her that Ivan had been suspended for minor infractions such as talking in class.
In one instance, a teacher punished Ivan, who has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and anxiety, by pulling him into a room, turning off the lights, and closing the door. He cried and begged to be let out but nobody came for him, Sepulveda said.
Sepulveda pulled Ivan out of the school less than a year after he started classes.
“I was so afraid something else would happen,” she said in Spanish. “He won’t sleep with the lights off or the door closed. He doesn’t like to be alone in the dark. . . . I never thought that they would treat students like that in this school.”