Hearings begin on troubles at special education schools

Photo by Flickr user Emmanuel Huybrechts

Top Massachusetts education officials are scheduled to testify Wednesday at a hearing focusing on questions of abuse, neglect and taxpayer funding of the state’s private special educational schools.

State Education Secretary Jim Peyser and Thomas Weber, commissioner of the Department of Early Education and Care, are among those set to appear at the hearing focusing on “governance and accountability” at state-approved private schools for students with special needs.

The hearing was organized by Rep. Alice Peisch, a Wellesley Democrat and co-chair of the Joint Committee on Education. Peisch said in August that she was troubled by an investigation by The Eye and WBUR public radio that documented violations of state regulations related to improper restraints, runaways and improper sexual relations between staff and students at the Chamberlain International School in Middleborough.

The Boston-based Disability Law Center also released a report that month finding the private nonprofit school failed to “prevent and properly respond” to students prone to hurting themselves and failed to prevent students from running away or prevent bullying.

“It certainly raises some serious issues about policies there, supervision and accountability,” Peisch said about Chamberlain.

Peisch also said she had questions about how taxpayer money is spent following an Eye story in October showing that the Chamberlain Executive Director William Doherty earned a salary of $325,880 in 2015 and also was a beneficiary of a real estate trust that charged the school $722,622 to rent campus properties. The Eye found Doherty was a top earner among school officials of comparable schools, whose salaries are as high as $424,698.

Peisch was not available Tuesday to say whether any changes to laws or regulations are currently under consideration. Another hearing is scheduled for December. Chamberlain officials have said its school is compliant with state regulations and called the law center’s report biased. They said the sums paid to Doherty are publicly disclosed and legal.

The debate comes amid growing concern about the treatment of students at the 108 state approved special education schools in Massachusetts. In March, the state shut down the Eagleton School in Great Barrington, which enrolled boys with mental disabilities, after five former staff members were arrested. In April, the Disability Law Center also filed a report alleging maltreatment at the private Evergreen Center  in Milford.

Special education boarding schools like Chamberlain are largely funded by taxpayer dollars – from both in and out of state — and overseen by the state Department of Early Education and Care and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Officials from the Disability Law Center were not invited to appear.  Other speakers will be Russell Johnston, a senior associate commissioner at the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and Maria Mossaides, head of the state Office of the Child Advocate.