Abuse claims persist for special needs school

Gilberto Toro — 22 years old and severely disabled — was repeatedly whipped by a belt-wielding caretaker two years ago in a group home run by the Canton-based Judge Rotenberg Educational Center, prosecutors say.

The worker, Mohamed Tarawally, was supposed to keep Toro safe overnight at his group home run by the school. But Assistant District Attorney Philip Burr says instead Tarawally assaulted his disabled ward — actions that were caught on video.

“As soon as he walked in the room, he takes off his belt and wraps it around his hand with the belt buckle dangling,” Burr said during a September hearing at Norfolk Superior Court in Dedham. “This is a case where the victim was whipped because he got out of bed.”

Tarawally pleaded not guilty to criminal charges. But the alleged assaults are not the only mistreatment reported at the Canton-based institution best known for being the only school in the United States to use electric shocks to control its special needs students.

The Rotenberg center has been frequently cited by state agencies for abusing and neglecting some of its 270 adult and juvenile wards diagnosed with major mental illnesses, autism and other developmental disabilities, state records show.

During 2016 alone, the school was cited 27 times by two state agencies that monitor the care of adults and children at special education schools for violations mostly related to abuse and neglect. That was more than any other school of its kind that year, according to records obtained by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

Students were allegedly hit, kicked and neglected by staff, according to records released by the state Department of Early Education and Care and the Disabled Persons Protection Commission.

Incidents include the alleged assault on Gilberto Toro and the beating of three residents at a group home in Norton that led to 90 days of jail time for Andre Scott, a former staff member who pleaded guilty to criminal charges.

Rotenberg executive director Glenda Crookes said details of alleged abuse are “devastating” to staff and the school does everything it can to protect its residents. The school and its 45 group homes are equipped with surveillance cameras, she said, but monitors are not able to watch every room at every minute.

Crookes acknowledged that the caring for disabled residents, ages 10 to 59, can be challenging. Many display severe aggressive and self-injurious behaviors including head-banging, punching and biting off their own fingers or pulling out their own teeth. The school has 1,000 staff members who receive ongoing training, she said, but that doesn’t always stop bad things from happening.

“Sometimes people don’t react the way they should,” Crookes said. “We self-report everything, and we have the surveillance to catch things.”

But some critics say mistreatment at the Rotenberg center is a natural extension of a culture that espouses the use of painful stimuli as a way to control students. Shain Neumeier, a Springfield-based disability rights attorney and longtime opponent of the center, is representing a California family who claims their 17-year-old daughter was assaulted at the center in February.

“People focus on the shock aspect of it. But well before, they were doing other things that are abusive,” Neumeier said. “It’s a culture of institutional abuse.”

History of Punishment

The Rotenberg center is one of about 50 privately run special education boarding schools in Massachusetts supported by taxpayer dollars to care for severely disabled students whose needs can’t be met by local school districts, drawing more than 2,000 students from the state and across the US. The center also cares for adult residents, many of whom started as younger pupils, as well as a large number of residents from New York, school officials said.

Since its opening in 1971, it has been surrounded by controversy because of its use of “aversives” — types of punishment used to control behavior including spraying students with water, pinching them or putting hot sauce on their tongues.

The school began to phase out most of those practices nearly three decades ago. Instead, officials embraced the use of two-second electric shocks some compare to a bee sting and others call torture — prompting protests, lawsuits and government efforts to stop them. Yet the institution has prevailed again and again, arguing there is no other way to safely manage some of its most severely disabled residents.

Angela Disisto of Medford with her autistic brother Luigi at the Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts. Angela says Luigi has benefited from the shock treatments and overall structure at the school. The backpack Luigi is wearing carries equipment that would give him a two-second electric skin shock if staff deemed his behavior dangerous. (Meredith Nierman/WGBH News)

Some vocal and devoted parents say the school’s treatment has saved their loved ones. Angela Disisto of Medford said her 47-year-old autistic brother Luigi has benefited from the shocks and structure at the school over two decades of living there. He’s a different person, she said, no longer aggressive or self-injurious and rarely in need of shocks administered through a pack he wears on his back.

“Where my brother is today and where he was 20 years ago is night and day,” she said. About the shocks, she says, “It stopped the behavior in its tracks.”

Gilberto Toro’s mother Carmen Pena, said she holds Tarawally and another former worker at fault for allegedly hurting her autistic son in 2016. Toro has been at the center for eight years, she said, and has been violent toward her and others. She said staff should have reached out for help if needed. “Somebody picked up a belt and hit my child,” she said. “There is no excuse for what he did.”

During a three-hour tour of the center in July, Crookes emotionally defended the institution she has worked at for nearly 30 years.

Crookes proudly showcased the classrooms and facilities, including a long, brightly lit hall, called the “Yellow Brick Road,” equipped with multiple options for residents to spend money earned for good behavior including a movie theater, candy store and barber shop.

She said if the number of maltreatment allegations at Rotenberg seem higher than at other state special education schools, it is because school officials report every violation they see and because of the center’s complex and large student population.

Crookes said school officials will likely seek to increase the number of students who are court-approved for shock treatment following a recent court decision supporting the practice. She said she loves to see how residents, previously heavily medicated, improve under their watch. “The change in their personalities is unreal,” she said. “They are happy. They are healthy.”

But state records show a darker side to the school. Prosecutors say that Tarawally used the buckle end of his belt to whip Toro on his behind or back of the legs, sometimes in an effort to make him move more quickly from the bathroom.

Another former worker, Claude Guerrier, also is charged with hurting Toro. In one instance, Guerrier spit on Toro and pushed him down before Tarawally hit him with a belt, prompting “anguished groaning,” according to a police report citing surveillance video.

Guerrier also pleaded not guilty and declined to comment for this story. He told police he had been struck by clients in the past. He said he was afraid and wasn’t trained well enough to work with people like Toro.

Tarawally admitted that he struck his victim, police say, a tactic that was not approved by the school. He said he had used the belt as way to create distance from Toro who suffers from aggressive and injurious behavior including head butting, scratching and pinching, court records show. He said he didn’t ask to be reassigned or ask for help because he didn’t want to “appear weak or not reliable.”

Mohamed Tarawally, a former worker at the Judge Rotenberg Center, listens during his initial hearing ahead of his trial at Norfolk County District Court in Dedham Massachusetts on July 27, 2018. Tarawally has been charged with assaulting a disabled ward at the center – actions that were caught on video.

In an interview before a July court hearing, Tarawally said he was being “set up” by the school that underplayed how violent Toro can be. He is seeking more video recordings to show how Toro assaulted him.

“That client is very aggressive. You have to match aggression with aggression,” Tarawally said. “I’m not going to get broken bones for minimum wage.”

Crookes dismissed Tarawally’s comments, saying that is opposite of how staff are trained. Instead, workers confronted with an aggressive resident should attempt to de-escalate the situation, redirect and only in emergencies restrain someone, she said.

Statewide Problems

The allegations against Rotenberg staff highlight challenges faced by organizations that run state-licensed special needs schools in Massachusetts. Teachers and staff members are generally paid less than those at public schools and are in charge of caring for severely disabled students.

Students at the residential programs — in contrast to a greater number of day schools — are considered to be the most at risk for abuse because they are living away from the watchful eyes of their parents.

Conditions at such schools came under state scrutiny two years ago when state officials shut down the Eagleton School for disabled boys and young men in Great Barrington after 20 former employees were indicted for their roles in abuse. The state Office of the Child Advocate released a report last year calling for improved oversight of such schools.

To better understand the scope of the problem, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting filed a request with the state Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) for one year of investigative reports related to violations of its regulations at group homes run by the schools.

The request took a year to complete, cost $2,400 and resulted in the release of heavily redacted documents involving 114 non-compliance reports among residences at 28 schools. Eighteen of those reports occurred at group homes run by the Rotenberg center, the highest number of any school.

The Rotenberg center also had the second highest number of violations of state regulations between 2011 and 2016, according to the EEC that licenses residential group care facilities with youths under the age of 22. The historical data was released without details of what occurred.

During that time, the center also was cited for abuse of adult residents more than any other special needs school by the state Disabled Persons Protection Commission.

Some employees who work with aggressive clients are provided safety padding to protect them from clients who may bite. (Meredith Nierman/WGBH News)

Maria Mossaides, head of the state Office of the Child Advocate, said anecdotal evidence shows that students are more likely to be abused during nights and weekends. She hopes to collect more data to better understand concerns and prevent future problems, but worries workers may be overtired because they are working too many hours or have second jobs.

Mossaides said it’s not clear whether more reported incidents means poorer performance. It could be that schools with more state violations are better at catching and reporting violations. Underreporting by some schools could also indicate a problem, she said.

“Every time a child gets injured that’s a concern,” she said.

Legal Challenges

The case against Tarawally is just one of the legal challenges facing the Rotenberg center.

The school recently won a long-fought legal battle with the state over its shock treatment after a probate court judge found officials could not prove the school fails to conform with the “accepted standard of care” of treating students with disabilities.

The state Attorney General’s office announced plans to appeal. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering new regulations to outlaw the use of shocks to control aggressive and self-injurious students — a proposal specifically crafted to stop the practice at the Massachusetts school.

A photo of former JRC resident Sarah Villa. Villa’s mother, Marie Villa, claims her daughter was punched in the face by a former staff member in February during a restraint on a bus. An investigator from the state Department of Children and Families supported allegations of abuse and neglect after a nurse said her black eye was “consistent with being punched.” The staff member could not be reached for comment but denied hurting Sarah in state records. (Courtesy of Marie Villa)

And several families and former students have filed civil suits against the school that are moving through the courts.

Marie and Johnny Villa of Lake Tahoe, California notified the center in August about their intention to file suit. The Villas pulled their daughter Sarah out of the Rotenberg center in February claiming she was abused by a staff member during a restraint.

In September, the Canton Police Department filed an application for a criminal complaint against the staff member, Devon Martinez, alleging assault and battery on a child with substantial injury. A hearing is scheduled for early November. Crookes said Martinez is no longer working at the center but declined to provide any more information on the case.

Villa’s mother Marie said her daughter has not been the same since she returned and is currently restricted to a psychiatric hospital. She said she is speaking out to protect other students. The center should be “shut down and every one of the children need to go to a safe place,” she said.

The Rotenberg center is not a defendant in the case against Tarawally, but it is likely staff training will be an issue if the case goes to trial. A trial is scheduled for April.

This story was co-published with WGBH New and the (Quincy) Patriot-Ledger. NECIR interns K. Sophie Will, Claire Tran, Sophia Tong and Cynthia Fernandez contributed to this story.