A private residential center in Middleborough for students with educational and psychiatric needs failed to properly respond to suicide attempts, ignored reports of verbal harassment by staff, and mistakenly administered medication, according to a new report.
The report is the result of a 15-month investigation into the private, 120-student Chamberlain International School. The nonprofit Disability Law Center, which authored the report, is a federally designated “protection and advocacy” organization with the authority to investigate the alleged abuse of people with disabilities throughout the state.
“In each of the areas where neglect was found, it wasn’t a one-off kind of event, wasn’t just one bad situation,” said Stanley Eichner, the Boston-based center’s litigation director. “It was the cumulative effect of seeing a problem repeated with different students at different times that caused us to make our neglect or abuse finding.”
The report, released Monday, triggered a fierce and immediate backlash from the school, which has threatened legal action and promised to ask the governor to revoke the watchdog group’s federal funding.
Attorney Eric MacLeish, who is representing the grade 6-12 school, called the allegations “disgraceful” and accused the law center of using its investigative authority to further its own political and advocacy aims.
“Chamberlain has been under siege by the DLC for the past 18 months,” MacLeish said. “The DLC has a well-known antipathy toward private residential centers. . . . That’s a complete conflict.”
Eichner said two complaints about the Chamberlain School triggered its inquiry in 2015. He said his organization compiled the report by reviewing the records of 20 students as well as interviews with dozens of current and former students, parents, and staff over several weeks.
The report describes students who were not placed on suicide watch despite expressing a desire to self-harm, or who did not see a therapist until several days after attempting to kill themselves. Another student allegedly disappeared during a school field trip to Boston and was not found for three days, it said.
Yet another student was mistakenly given four times the dosage of his or her prescribed psychiatric medication, seven times in a three-week period, the report alleges.
Former students, parents, and representatives of the Disability Law Center and Chamberlain offered almost opposite accounts of the climate at the school and of the nature of the investigation.
Eichner, for example, said that while parents and students were initially wary of the nonprofit group’s investigation, ultimately only a “very small” group of families expressed completely positive feelings about the school.
A former student said problems were widespread at Chamberlain, which she attended for just over a year several years ago.
“I have a friend who dealt with an unintentional overdose as far as mishandling of medication, so the report is absolutely factual; it’s definitely not an, ‘Oh, the majority were helped and these are the exceptions,’ ” said the student, who was interviewed for the report. “It’s a really unhealthy environment.”
But MacLeish said the “vast majority” of families credit Chamberlain with turning their lives around. He said he highly doubts Eichner’s account of the interviews.
Tom Warren, of New York, said his son has grown remarkably in his year and a half at Chamberlain. The school is a drastic improvement from the public school his son attended, which Warren said was unequipped to address his needs.
“We’re talking about a very complex school with very complex students, and we know nothing is going to be perfect,” said Warren, who said he spoke to Eichner twice during the investigation. Eichner “already had an agenda, is what I felt.”
Warren’s son was ultimately not interviewed for the report, Warren said.
The state’s Department of Early Education and Care and Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said in a joint statement that the Chamberlain school is in good standing and they are reviewing the report.