State Clears Haverhill Principal, Staff in Restraint Case; Second Agency Finds Program Faults

Former Haverhill Public Schools special needs teacher Timothy Walsh raises concerns about the TEACH program at the Feb. 28, 2019 School Committee meeting (Dave Morrison file photograph for WHAV News)

A Haverhill principal and four other staff, placed on paid leave after a student assault March 29, have been cleared of any wrongdoing and are expected to return to work immediately.

The action by the state Department of Children and Families comes on the heels of state education department findings that this year’s changes to a special education program were made in defiance of state and federal regulations. The two developments are related in that teachers and parents have argued the changes at the center of the state report led to increased “acting out” episodes by special needs students.

As of Tuesday afternoon, city officials could not say when Haverhill Alternative School Principal John DePolo and four staff members would return to their jobs. It is the second time since October that DePolo was forced off the job and then exonerated in incidents involving restraint of a student. During the latest incident at St. James School, according to a 15-year staff member, a student “repeatedly kicked and punched staff and head-butted two staff.”

“I’m very happy to say the allegations were unsubstantiated for all five of us, which is what we knew would occur,” DePolo told WHAV. “We did none nothing wrong. Our job was keeping the situation safe.”

A separate April 12 ruling by the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education calls for Haverhill Public Schools to stop using an unheated annex as a classroom, seek “re-approval” of programs, obtain parent approval of changes by June 14 and take other “corrective actions.” The findings by DESE’s Donna Feinberg and Dean Paolillo support a special education teacher who complained of “substantial changes” at the Therapeutic Education Assessment Center of Haverhill—known as TEACH. As reported first by WHAV, former SPED instructor Tim Walsh told School Committee members in February that he resigned because his concerns were being ignored by the current school administration. The agency made a similar ruling April 5 after hearing a parent’s complaint.

Following an on-site visit, the state decided the program at St. James School failed to submit a “Notification of Substantial Changes,” have licensed SPED  teachers in two of seven TEACH classrooms at the start of the school year, provide notice to parents or guardians of an “interruption in services,” show a substitute teacher on the job more than 90 days was licensed or sought a waiver, provide required occupational therapy and speech and language services and have teachers and parents at certain Individualized Education Program team meetings.

In letters to both the state and School Committee, Walsh traced problems back to the appointment of Lyn A. Snow as principal of the TEACH program.

“The change was the result of the new principal’s desire to both start a new showpiece pet-project and to rid herself of both staff and students who did not fit within the system she had, again with no discussion with staff or parents, decided to implement at the program,” Walsh wrote.

When one of his classes was moved, Walsh told the state, he was forced to choose at the end of November between a laundry room and an unheated library in a school annex. With five minutes notice, he said, he borrowed a space heater “in an attempt to keep the students somewhat warm.”

In its findings, the education officials wrote, “The Department did not find the space to be equitable.”

Until this school year, DePolo had been principal of both the alternative school and TEACH programs for six years.

The state Department of Children and Families is also investigating an April 12 child restraint issue at St. James School. The latest incident, according to those with knowledge of it, involved a student who “punched (Assistant Special Education Director John) DeManche in the face and hit him with a chair.” The student was then was restrained by DeManche and a temporary staff member. It is not clear who filed the report with the state or when.

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