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