Agency Reports Crowell Kindergarten Abused Children with Restraint Misuse

Haverhill’s Crowell School kindergarten came under fire Thursday for abuse and neglect of children by improperly using “restraint, time-out and disciplinary” actions against children.

Disability Law Center staff attorney Colleen Shea told WHAV a complaint lodged a year ago, involving a five-year-old student, sparked the investigation

“The student was having a difficult time being upset in class, and the staff was restraining her at times prior to using other, less intrusive types of intervention,” she explained.

The Disability Law Center of Boston is the designated Protection and Advocacy System for Massachusetts under federal law. While the agency received three complaints, Shea described the particular situation.

“There was one day where she was under a table, very upset, crying, not cooperating with the teacher’s instructions to participate in whatever they were doing in class and the staff tried to remove her from underneath the table. First, they tried to coax her and, then when she wouldn’t come out, they forcibly removed her from under the table and put her in a restraint.”

A report noted the restrained child’s parent said “she came home with adult size hand prints (red marks and bruising) on her small body from these restraints, calling into question whether they were administered in a way to prevent harm.” Shea explained why the school’s actions amounted to illegal neglect and abuse. “Restraints are supposed to be used as an emergency, last resort, kind of intervention. If a child is about to hurt themselves or hurt another badly, that’s when a restraint is supposed to be used.”

Last May, the Disability Law Center informed the city of its intent to investigate. It found “students with disabilities at Crowell were subjected to abuse, neglect and improper practices.” The following month, officials visited Crowell, toured the school and interviewed two staff—a general teacher and a speech therapist.

The agency’s litigation director, Stanley J. Eichner, said Haverhill school officials were accommodating. “They were cooperative. They worked with us to do the site visit where we went to the school, looked at every class, met some of the staff people. So, they were cooperative,” he said.

The school’s only special education teacher, however, declined the agency’s request for an interview, a statement said. Officials went on to interview 20 families and seven families gave releases for student records, Eichner said.

Haverhill Public Schools has 45 days to respond. Eichner described an acceptable outcome. “They come up with an effective, detailed plan, to address the problems found.”

Haverhill School Superintendent James F. Scully told WHAV the city, with its outside attorney Catherine Lyons, will submit a plan. “We’re trying to satisfy all of the points raised. I think we’ve already addressed a number of them,” he said.

While the agency could take the school system to federal cut, Eichner said, such measures are not typically required.

“The pattern and practice of forcibly containing and restraining very small children with disabilities repeatedly for common kindergarten misbehavior is extremely troubling.” said Christine Griffin, the center’s executive director. “This treatment not only hurts these young students in the short-term, but causes long-term trauma for them and possibly all the children in these classrooms.”

The report also described another incident cited by two parents.

“Two parents reported witnessing Crowell staff holding a large mat over the entrance to the closet (about the size of a door) to contain a hysterical child. One parent was called to the school at dismissal because her daughter refused to get on the bus. When the parent arrived, her approximately 40-pound daughter with disabilities was being held in the downstairs cubby closet by a Crowell staff member with a giant mat. The parent noted her daughter was screaming, crying and trying desperately to escape the small room. The parent noted there was no way the child could remove herself from the room (mat covering door and being physically held against door by adult) and the intervention in no way was calming her daughter down. In fact, the holding of the mat over the door appeared to be escalating her daughter’s behavior,” the investigator wrote.

According to the report, school staff said the mat was used only to protect the adult’s body and “never to contain a child in a room.” The investigation disputed the claim. “If Crowell staff needed a mat to block the student’s tiny hits and kicks from landing on the much larger adult’s body, one panel of the three-panel mat would suffice. Instead, the mat was large enough to cover the entire door opening. Based on parent reports, the mats were used to both block the adult’s body and keep the child contained.