Monday, November 30, 2009

MA: Follow Up Email Exchange with the MA DLC re Allegations at South Shore

The following is an email exchange that occurred as a follow-up with Attorney Matthew Engel of the Disability Law Center (DLC) of Massachusetts regarding our concerns about the DLC's initial refusal to independently investigate witnesses' allegations of abuse against 6 nonverbal children with autism and other disabilities in a special education classroom.

We first emailed the Disability Law Center of MA, that state's Protection & Advocacy, on October 18, 2008, after reading an article published by which relayed allegations of abuse by special education teacher Ann Gibbons against all 6 students in her class. Witnesses had claimed to have seen Ms. Gibbons punching a child in the head; bending the fingers of children as discipline; pushing a child who'd allegedly bit her finger; and telling students she was "bigger," "badder," and "stronger than you."

On October 25, 2008, we'd posted our disappointment with the response we'd received from Attorney Matthew Engel of the Disability Law Center - that despite credible evidence of repeated abuse, the Law Center would not investigate the allegations because the Department of Social Services (DSS; now the Department of Children and Families) had already investigated and found no credible evidence of abuse.

In the meantime, a parent whose child was in Ms. Gibbons' classroom contacted us and informed us of a possible conflict of interest between the Department of Social Services and the school.

Upon further investigation, we confirmed that a DSS funded program for "at risk youth," known as Pathways, was being run out of the very same school where the abuse allegations stemmed. Because this could be perceived (and we interpreted it) as a conflict of interest, we wanted the Disability Law Center to reconsider their refusal to get involved in this case and more closely examine the veracity of the claim that abuse allegations were unfounded and that witnesses' testimony was not credible.

We're happy to report that the DLC has expressed concern over how the DSS investigation was conducted and has decided to meet with the parents involved to discuss things further.

Below is the email exchange that helped lead to the Disability Law Center's decision:


Dear Mr. Engel:

Thank you for taking the time to look into the South Shore Collaborative Schoolallegations we previously referred to you. We appreciate your efforts and completely understand budget constraints and why you're not able to assist every family, but must admit to some disappointment that more couldn't have been done given the number of children involved and the supposed first-hand eyewitness accounts of the alleged abuse.

We know that the assistant clerk magistrate ruled against the parents and found the witnesses testimony not credible. This isn't surprising, because what person of sound mind really wants to believe someone would deliberately harm not only a child, but a child with disabilities who is even more defenseless? This is why allegations of these types are so hard to prove.

However, you'd mentioned that there did appear to be very credible evidence of abuse, but that the DSS was unwilling to revisit their findings. We may know why they were so adamant about changing their findings and wanted to share with you what we have learned.

Were you aware that Joseph "Jay" Madigan is both a Member of the Board of theSouth Shore Collaborative> School District and of a DSS-funded program called Pathways? Were you aware that the Pathways program is operated AT The South Shore Collaborative School?

The question is, legally and ethically how could the DSS objectively investigate a school that they've not only charged with operating a program on behalf of theDSS but one that DSS pays the school to run? If DSS did in fact find the abuse allegations "founded" what would be the repercussions of such a finding? WouldDSS's funding have been jeopardized? Would they be concerned about the public's perceptions of DSS and/or whether the reputation of DSS would be damaged because they funded and operated a program at a school where abuse had occurred?

We contend that DSS's involvement in this matter is a direct conflict of interest with the result that the South Shore Collaborative School district could very well be "investigating" or "policing" itself; a situation that not only taints the DSSinvestigation, making the resultant findings completely suspect, but is also counterproductive to the protection of other vulnerable children when such allegations at South Shore are raised.

This is why we were hoping to have an independent investigation by Protection and Advocacy.

Is there any way that the decision against a P&A investigation could be reconsidered? Or is there some other reason that would preclude investigations by both DSS and the P&A (such as funding stream constraints)? If so, do you have any further recommendations for these families as they pursue an appeal to the decision?

Thank you again for your attention to this matter. Any assistance or advice you could share would be greatly appreciated by not only our office, but the families involved as well. I look forward to your response.


Response from Attorney Engel:


Dear Ms. Searcy:

[T]hank you for providing me with this additional information. While I am not sure that this changes the legal analysis, we continue to be concerned about what happened, as well as the actions or inactions of DSS. Do you know if the teacher is still teaching either at the Collaborative or anywhere else?

At this point, I am certainly willing to meet with interested parents to talk about the situation. I believe that most of them were previously represented by [redacted for privacy] so I would have to contact her initially. If you are aware of any parents who did not have legal representation, they can certainly contact me directly.

Matthew Engel

Senior Attorney

Disability Law Center

(413) 584-6337 - phone

(413) 584-2976 - fax


Our response:


Dear Attorney Engel:

Thank you so much! We, too, weren't sure if it changed the legal analysis, but it certainly does call into question why DSS was contacted to investigate when they knew there was a coflict (sp) of interest because of their Pathways Project for "children at risk" at South Shore. However, we appreciate any help you could offer to these families.

I have forwarded your email to the families involved and they have assured me they will be in touch with you soon. One set of parents I know for sure does not have legal representation currently, though they'd retained [redacted for privacy] to file their complaint with the Dept of Education previously. As for some of the others, I'm awaiting their responses.

To answer your question about whether Ann Gibbons is currently teaching, to the best of our knowledge she continues to teach at Chapman school in Weymouth. But we have not contacted the school to confirm this as of yet. If you find out before we do, could you let us know?

Please let me know how I can be of further help to you. As more information becomes available, I'll be sure to keep you informed.

Best regards,

Jennifer Searcy

Founder/Director of Public Policy and Affairs

The Coalition for Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports

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