Metro

Ex-Holyoke schools chief defends handling of inquiry

Former Holyoke superintendent Sergio Paez on Monday again defended his handling of abuse allegations that surfaced at a special education program during his tenure, a scandal that threatens to derail his bid to become schools chief in Minneapolis.

Paez said in a statement that he “acted with the utmost professionalism and urgency on all claims and allegations” during his tenure. He oversaw the district from 2013 until state officials voted in April to take it over.

He said that “immediately upon receiving complaints” at the Peck School, “my team and I followed standard procedures and protocols, including cooperating fully with state agencies, conducting thorough investigations, and instituting corrective actions.”

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Earlier this month, a report from the Disability Law Center, which investigated the Peck School for the state, found that special-needs students were forced to the floor and immobilized, restrained for long periods, slammed into walls, and slapped by staff members.

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Investigators also found that the school did not report the restraints or their related injuries to the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, as required by law.

But in his statement Monday, Paez said that until recent media coverage of the case, state officials never objected to “the way the matter was handled or recommend[ed] additional interventions.”

Paez continued, “I take particular issue with reports that I was dismissive of any parent’s concerns, because nothing could be farther from the truth.

“I have always approached parent concerns with the highest respect and attention, particularly when they have questions about the well-being of their child,” he added.

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But Christine Griffin, executive director of the Disability Law Center, took issue with Paez’s comments when reached by phone.

“If he was aware of the problem and he took corrective action, why were kids being restrained and harmed during the time he was there,” she said.

The former Holyoke superintendent previously defended his actions in an interview with the Globe, insisting that “no evidence of abuse was found” in his investigation, while conceding there were problems at the school that he was trying to resolve.

Last week, the Minneapolis Board of Education suspended contract talks with Paez to become the new superintendent so officials there could look into the Peck School matter.

Jenny Arneson, the Minneapolis board chair, said Monday that the panel will review the matter again at its Jan. 12 meeting. The review will include “information that Dr. Paez provides us and the result of our other due diligence,” Arneson wrote in an e-mail.

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James Peyser, the Massachusetts secretary of education, said in response to Paez’s statement that his agency’s primary concern is the health and safety of students in the special needs program.

He said state officials are working to help the Holyoke Public Schools “keep the Peck School moving in a positive direction.”

Brian MacQuarrie and Jeremy C. Fox of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.