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Former Holyoke superintendent defends handling of abuse allegations

Liza Hirsch, a former worker in the Holyoke school who reported the abuse of disabled students. Jim Davis/Globe Staff

The former superintendent of Holyoke schools defended his handling of abuse allegations in a special-education program that occurred under his watch, but said he is unsure whether publicity over the claims will cost him his appointment to lead the Minneapolis schools.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Sergio Paez said. Minneapolis officials, he said, “are doing their due diligence, talking to the state, looking at the report, assessing everything.”

Paez said that after allegations came to light this week that students with behavioral and emotional disabilities had been abused in the program while he led the district, Minneapolis education officials asked whether he should have disclosed the issue before the school board’s vote.

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“I said, ‘Well, this and twenty-hundred things that I do every day should have been disclosed,’ ” he said. “It’s impossible for me. I didn’t know this would come out in such a way.

“I’ve been very honest with everybody about this,’’ he added. “I hope it doesn’t affect my job there.”

Members of the Minneapolis school board did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Amy M. Moore, an attorney for Minneapolis Public Schools, said the board was unaware of the allegations when it voted 6-3 Monday to hire Paez.

“The board takes the allegations about the Holyoke school seriously and is in contact with the State of Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education in order to fully understand what investigations have been conducted and the nature of all findings,” Moore said in a statement. “Contract negotiations [with Paez] are proceeding.”

Paez oversaw the Holyoke school district from 2013 until state officials voted in April to take over the district, which had long struggled with low test scores and high dropout rates.

But Paez said it was his decision in 2013 to integrate students with behavioral and emotional disabilities into the Peck Full Service Community School, where two investigations this year found evidence that those children were abused.

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Among the findings were that students were slapped, tackled, pinned face-down, and yanked out of chairs for refusing to stand.

The state education department found that the school was not in compliance with regulations that permit restraint of students only when nonphysical interventions do not work and the behavior endangers the student or others. The regulations specify that students cannot be restrained as a punishment or in response to disruptive or destructive behaviors that are not an immediate danger.

The state Department of Children and Families said Friday that it also had conducted four investigations at the Peck School since October 2014 and found evidence of physical abuse involving the restraint of children. Another DCF investigation into allegations of child abuse at the school is ongoing.

“The administration’s first priority is to make sure children are safe in the Holyoke schools, and the reports of abuse and neglect are deeply troubling,” Rhonda Mann,a spokeswoman for the Executive Office of Health & Human Services, said in a statement.

“The administration is requesting that the Child Advocate and a nationally recognized child mental health expert in seclusion and restraint carefully review the issues to ensure the safety and security of these kids,” Mann added.

The findings by the state agencies contradict a report that Holyoke Public Schools submitted to the education department in June and earlier statements from Paez.

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Paez told the Globe on Thursday that “no evidence of abuse was found” in his investigation. But when asked about the state’s findings Friday, Paez said there had been problems at the school that he was trying to resolve.

“I’m not saying at any point that it was, like, completely innocent, that we didn’t do anything,” he said. “I’m telling you that we had some issues that we were working on.”

Paez said he did not directly oversee the school district’s investigation and its report to the education department because he had been stripped of most of the powers of superintendent by the state takeover in April. In effect, he said, the education department issued a report to itself.

Paez said his office had receivedreports of abuse and neglect of students at the Peck School, as at some other schools in the district, prior to the state inquiry. He said his staff had carefully investigated those claims and found no wrongdoing.

But Paez struggled to explain why he was unable to substantiate or act upon numerous claims submitted to him March 6 in a letter from Liza Hirsch, a former administrator at the Peck School.

Hirsch’s letter became the driving force behind both the state investigation and a separate inquiry by the Boston-based Disability Law Center, which issued a disturbing assessment of student treatment at the Peck School on Wednesday, bringing the allegations to public notice for the first time.

Hirsch told the Globe that Paez had responded to her highly detailed seven-page letter — with a dozen attachments that included student, parent, and staff accounts of abuse — with his assurance that he was investigating the claims.

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Paez said Friday that he does not support using physical force to subdue an unruly child.

“My standard . . . is as much as possible, do not have physical contact with kids, period,” he said. “To me, the restraint alone is indication that we are exacerbating, or pushing triggers.”


Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox.