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Lawsuit claims Northfield school failed to prevent student sexual abuse, despite warnings



Monitor staff
Last modified: Thursday, February 04, 2016
The parents of a 13-year-old boy are suing a special education school in Northfield, claiming officials there failed to prevent a fellow student from sexually assaulting him.

In a complaint filed Monday in federal court, they said the boy reported several incidents of sexual harassment last year to employees at the Spaulding Youth Center, but that the school never adequately intervened or even notified them of the claims.

The school “did not take appropriate steps to investigate the reported incidents, protect (the boy), or take appropriate actions to prevent future incidents and harm to (him),” the lawsuit states.

The parents said they first learned of the abuse in October after the boy, who has autism and other developmental disabilities, was found sexually assaulting his young sister at their home in Auburn. That prompted an investigation by the Division of Children, Youth and Families, and a request from the family that Spaulding turn over the boy’s records.

The school has yet to officially respond to the allegations, and Principal Colleen Sliva did not return a request for comment Tuesday.

Jim Clements, the school’s CEO, said he was aware of the complaint but unable discuss it because of privacy concerns for the juveniles involved.

Also named in the suit are the Auburn School District and its parent administrative unit, SAU 15, which the boy’s parents say failed to properly monitor the boy’s time at Spaulding. Superintendent Phil Littlefield said Monday that he had not seen the complaint and declined to comment otherwise.

Spaulding was founded in 1958 and now serves up to 70 students with varying disabilities including neurological impairments and behavioral difficulties. The private nonprofit employs more than 180 people and reports a $10 million yearly operating budget. It’s funded through a combination of state and federal funds and payments from referring districts.

According to the lawsuit, the boy began attending the school in May 2013. The next year he was transferred out of its residential program and into the day school only.

He first reported the harassment to a counselor last March, claiming the student, a girl whose age was not disclosed, had rubbed her breasts in front of him and told him to suck on them. He said the girl had previously grabbed his butt.

The boy notified another employee of the same incidents, and later reported a separate event, in which the girl allegedly breathed heavily down his neck as she walked by his seat. The next month, he told an employee that the girl was “following him around again.”

The complaint does not say what steps the school did take to respond to the initial claims.

Last June, the boy was discharged from Spaulding and sent to a less-restrictive facility in Amherst. During that process, the school issued an update on his recent therapy sessions, according to the complaint. The report omitted any mention of sexual harassment, the suit claims.

After the abuse was discovered in October, the boy’s mother said she emailed staff at Spaulding and asked to see what records it had on the harassment, as well as a copy of the school’s policy on sexual harassment, which she still has yet to receive, the complaint said.

In November the boy told DCYF investigators that, after reporting the harassment, the girl placed her hands down his pants and made him touch her breasts and genitals.

Lorraine Bartlett, director of DCYF, said she could neither confirm nor deny that an inquiry had taken place, or discuss whether there has been similar complaints about Spaulding.

In January, the boy’s parents say they were forced to move him to a residential facility in Massachusetts that specializes in working with students who have engaged in sexualized behaviors. The family is seeking reimbursement for that from the Auburn School District, a separate process from the lawsuit.

Their attorney, Karen Hewes, declined to comment or respond to specific questions Tuesday, citing the sensitive nature of the complaint.