Another state child abuse investigation has led to the suspension of a Haverhill school principal and four others. The latest incident, however, is shedding light not only on student restraint policies but how a new school administration deals with controversy.
Haverhill Alternative School Principal John DePolo who has worked in the school system 18 years, was suspended a week ago last Friday. He was followed last week by four staffers who came to his defense. The paid leaves follow a state Department of Children and Families review of allegations surrounding restraint of a child at St. James School. It is the most public recitation of student restraint policies since the Disability Law Center charged last year the Crowell School kindergarten improperly used “restraint, time-out and disciplinary” actions against children.
The March 29 incident, according to a 15-year staff member, involved a student who “repeatedly kicked and punched staff and head butted two staff. John was kicked in the ribs, which swelled immediately, forcing him to make the decision to go to the doctor’s and have x-rays completed.”
Some argue Superintendent Margaret Marotta’s handling of DePolo, though, reflects her intent to create and use such controversies to advance her own staffing agenda. School Committee member Scott W. Wood Jr. is one of them.
“He’s worked for five superintendents. There’s never been an issue with him. He’s very well-liked by parents, students and staff alike,” Wood said Friday night.
In a letter sent to School Committee members March 31, a 10-year special education teacher charged DePolo was initially singled out as he was during a similar, previously undisclosed incident last October involving middle- and high school-aged students. Then, DePolo was reportedly suspended three weeks and the superintendent “sought to tarnish his reputation” even though the state “determined that John DePolo was not at fault during the restraint.”
The claim of an unfair focus on DePolo, some say, is supported by Marotta relieving him of his supervision of the Therapeutic Education Assessment Center of Haverhill. Earlier this school year, DePolo was replaced as principal of that program at St. James School by Lyn A. Snow.
‘No Restraint’ Policy Change Fuels Dissension
The educator also alleges “staff have been physically assaulted on a daily basis” since Marotta put into place a no-restraint policy. School Committee members were asked, “What sort of guidance is this administration planning to put into place to keep our students and staff safe?”
Marotta told WHAV she is, in fact, making changes. She said, “There’s a lot of wonderful thing about the Haverhill Alternative School, but there’s a lot of room to grow. I know it’s frustrating and difficult, but in the end, it is best to do things differently. There’s room for all of us to improve…Change is hard”
The staffer added, “we have had more staff assaults than any other year in the 15 years I have worked there. My coworkers have been kicked, punched, spit on, bitten, head butted and pushed countless times this year.” She said DePolo “has expressed how difficult it has been this year to not be able to intervene the way we have been trained to do.”
Wood said the superintendent’s changes might be over the top. “The programs at St. James are being somewhat dismantled, it seems.”
Haverhill Education Association President Ted Kempinski said the union has approached Marotta over safety policy and procedures. He said, “My concern is about staff and student safety. This last year these issues have caused us considerable frustration. We have reached out to the school district for more support and attention on these matters.”
Concerns about DePolo being removed from the TEACH program also brought a recent complaint from a parent. “I’ve never had the issues that are currently taking place. I’m now heartbroken,” the mother wrote. She filed a formal complaint with the state last December that the school no longer follows her teenager’s Individualized Education Program, or IEP.
The School Department was slow to respond to WHAV’s questions sent last week. Marotta responded Friday, only after Andrea Grossman, DCF spokeswoman, confirmed the agency “has received a report and is investigating.” In an email to School Committee members late Friday afternoon, Marotta added, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education was also informed.
As WHAV previously reported in February, Tim Walsh said he stepped down after three years as a teacher at the school to bring to light what he called “abuse,” allegedly suffered by administrators. Walsh, whose students suffer from the autism spectrum disorder, told School Committee member his concerns were going ignored by the new administration.
At the beginning of the school year, Marotta reassigned Haverhill High School Principal Beth Kitsos as a chief academic officer and worked behind the scenes to oust school Business Manager Brian O’Connell.