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Article of Interest - Discipline

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Bridges4Kids Logo'Serious Risks' Cited at School For Teens
by Jessica Bennett, Boston Globe, February 23, 2004
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In the past year, the state has launched investigations into nine incidents at the DeSisto School, a $66,000-a-year facility for teens with behavioral, drug, and mental health problems. But state concerns reached new heights recently when a staffer waited more than 90 minutes to take a student to the hospital after she purposely cut herself and swallowed two razor blades.

The state Office of Child Care Services sent a letter to DeSisto administrators Feb. 11 describing what it called "serious risks" to students' safety. The razor blade incident -- in which school staff failed to tell emergency room doctors or nurses that she had swallowed the blades -- was just one example, according to the letter.

Other concerns included: improper administration of medication, such as double dosing of lithium, missing medications because of staff errors, and delay in insulin administration, the letter said.

"Many of the issues identified are recurring issues that we have addressed with the school in the past," the OCCS said in the letter.

The nine probes since the school was licensed last year have targeted issues ranging from staff training to inappropriate use of restraints, once resulting in the fracture of a student's hand, said state Office of Health and Human Services spokeswoman Donna Rheaume. She declined to say how the probes compare with investigations at other schools.

The school, which has 54 students, is also being investigated on a neglect charge by the state Department of Social Services, spokeswoman Denise Monteiro said.

School officials, who lost a legal bid to be exempted from state licensing, say they are well on their way to resolving all of the state's concerns. The staff member involved in the razor blade incident has been suspended, said Frank McNear, executive director of DeSisto. The school also agreed to a state request to stop taking new students for a two-week period that ends today.

"We admit our response was less than adequate and we've dealt with it," said McNear, a former businessman who has been director of the school since August 2001. The school's founder, A. Michael DeSisto, died in November. "You've got a lot of kids with a lot of pathologies here. I won't tell you we're a perfect school, but we're totally committed to addressing problems as they surface."

McNear also met with OCCS officials to devise a plan to resolve the safety concerns in a way that meets state approval. The plan to bring the school into compliance is expected to be formalized this week, said McNear and Rheaume.

One child advocate said the recent incident is alarming and should not be forgotten quickly.

"There's no excuse not to treat a child immediately and not to take them to a hospital, even if it's due to self-mutilation," said Andrea Watson, executive director of Parents for Residential Reform at the Federation for Children with Special Needs, a parental-rights group in Boston. "This kind of abuse can't go on, and the people of Massachusetts need to know it's occurring."

But Adrianna Bates, the mother of the girl involved in the razor incident, said she doesn't fault the school. She said her daughter wants to return, and she is upset that the state's intervention is preventing that from happening. Her daughter, who suffers from bipolar disorder, has been in a psychiatric hospital in upstate New York for the past two weeks, where she was also able to cut herself.

"What's happening is like a nightmare," said Bates, of New Haven, Conn. "My daughter was just now making breakthroughs and they're telling her she can't go back. This is like the worst thing that could happen."

In its 26-year history, the DeSisto School has had criminal molestation charges brought against a dorm parent and another state investigation that found abuse and neglect involving nine students. But it has also been praised for its tough-love approach and sometimes surprising results with a challenging population.

DeSisto started the school in 1978 on a picturesque, 275-acre campus in the Berkshires after he was fired as director of a Long Island, N.Y., boarding school.

DeSisto "was a very strange but charismatic individual," said Amanda Rhael of Brooklyn, N.Y., whose son attended DeSisto briefly in 1995. She withdrew him after less than a year, after learning that one of the school's counselors had filed a complaint with DSS. She said she later found out that counselors were forced to brief DeSisto on what each student said in therapy.

"It was totally unorthodox," Rhael said. The school has been criticized for disciplinary practices such as making students stand silently in front of a wall until they admit to breaking a rule, a punishment known as "cornering," as well as for sending students to "the farm" -- a detention center where students were forced to do manual labor. McNear says neither of these practices is now in use.

"There were practices in the '80s and early '90s that are no longer done here," McNear said. "I don't even like to drag this stuff up again because it hasn't happened in a really long time."

In 1993, DeSisto dorm parent Alfonso Saiz was sentenced to four to five years in state prison for molesting six DeSisto students. In 1996, a DSS investigation found three cases of neglect and abuse involving nine students.

Nineteen-year-old Ronnie Dicker, of Bergen County, N.J., has been at DeSisto for more than four years. A recovering drug addict, he said his experience at the school has been challenging, but "fantastic stuff came out of it."

"I feel a lot better about who I am today, I feel a lot happier," said Dicker, who hopes to one day go into modeling or acting. "I have a drive now."

Dicker agrees the school has changed a lot since McNear took over. But he also recalls his early months in 2000 when he was forced to sleep with 13 other students in what he said was a two-person dorm room. During Desisto's tenure, Dicker said, he was "cornered" for days at a time, although he said he was given breaks to eat, sleep, and use the bathroom.

"This place isn't for everyone," said 17-year-old Alicia Gergely, a recovering drug abuser from Long Island who said she has grown a lot in her 10 months at the school. "If I weren't here," she said, "I would probably be dead."

    

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