Last November, an emergency call alerted police in Middleborough, Massachusetts that Meghan Murphy, an autistic student from the Chamberlain International School, had run away and jumped into the nearby Taunton River.
Police and firemen tried throwing her a lifeline, a tree branch and a rescue disk. She didn’t reach for them. Finally, one officer on a kayak grabbed her by the sweatshirt and helped pull her to shore, where she was rushed to a nearby hospital.
"She kept going under and popping up, and didn't say a word," said Middleborough Fire Chief Lance Benjamino. "She was semi-conscious when we took her out of the water."
It was far from the first time the Middleborough constabulary has had to deal with runaways from Chamberlain, a special-education school that enrolls many students with a psychiatric history.
Since the start of 2008, police have responded to at least 440 calls for service to the school, including 126 for runaways. Overall, 42 arrests resulted from the calls, which also dealt with assaults, student “disturbances” and alleged sex offenses, according to Middleborough police logs. Chamberlain said it enrolls about 114 students ages 11 to 22, predominantly as residents.
After the November incident, Chamberlain responded to state regulators by developing a “corrective action plan” to better protect students from local hazards, including the nearby woods and highways.
But that didn’t resolve the broader question of whether students are well protected and why so many run.
The runaways are “obviously a problem” said Middleborough Police Chief Joseph Perkins. “It’s not a secure facility.”
“They don’t have training to keep these kids safe," said Kent Murphy, whose daughter Meghan was pulled from the river. Murphy said Meghan, then 17 years old, was traumatized, nearly drowned and “is a shell of her former self.”
Findings of neglect
Meghan Murphy’s story -- told with her name removed -- is one of many detailed in an investigative report released Monday that found numerous instances of neglect and abuse Chamberlain, including the school’s alleged failure to prevent and protect runaways. Her identity was separately verified.
The report, by the federally designated advocate for the disabled in Massachusetts, also found excessive use of force in restraints; a failure to prevent suicide attempts and self-cutting by students known to be prone to harm themselves; abuse in the form of threats and “mental and emotional harassment” of students, and inadequate actions against bullying at the school, whose tuition and fees top $100,000 a year.
The report’s author, the Disability Law Center, said the school has been working on curbing restraints and problems with medication mistakes at the school but needed to reform its policies and practices on other issues.
Chamberlain called the report a “flawed, self-serving and biased document" in a press release. In interviews, school officials have said serious problems are rare at the school, whose students deal with disorders including anxiety, autism, depression and schizophrenia. When incidents occur they are typically reported by the school, which has worked with regulators to take corrective actions, they said.
The number of police calls and runaways is not surprising for schools with emotionally troubled kids, said Roderick MacLeish, a lawyer for the school. “Things happen,” said MacLeish.
“Things happen to these children before they came. Things happen sometimes when they are at Chamberlain.” The “real issue,” he said, is whether the school has support from its regulators, and “the answer is yes.”
The school is currently compliant with state regulations, according to the two agencies that are its primary overseers.
The law center’s investigation of Chamberlain comes amid growing concern about the treatment of students at special-education schools in Massachusetts. In March, the state shut down the Eagleton School in Great Barrington, which enrolls boys with mental disabilities, after five former staff members were arrested.
Since then, 17 people have been charged in connection with an investigation into claims of physical and emotional abuse at the school. Since last December, the law center also filed reports alleging maltreatment at the private Evergreen School in Milford and at the public Peck School, which teaches emotionally disturbed students in Holyoke. In February, the center, the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Holyoke school district reached an agreement to address problems after the center’s report found a “disturbing pattern of excessive physical restraint and psychological abuse of youngsters with disabilities.”
“Sadly, we are spending more and more time discovering such instances in schools and other facilities across the state,” said Stan Eichner, the law center’s litigation director.
Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Office of the Child Advocate created an interagency working group to look at state oversight of special education schools. Maria Mossaides, head of the office, said there are concerns about a “culture of silence” among staff members that don’t always report problems and state agencies that are not sharing data when troubles occur.
Mossaides said Monday that the agency is evaluating the Chamberlain report. She said the task force is focusing on the 56 state-licensed private residential programs because of concerns that their students are particularly vulnerable, some unable to communicate, living away from home. “They represent the most at risk youth," she said.
Non-compliance Chamberlain has a history of running afoul of state rules, according to documents reviewed in an investigation by The Eye and WBUR public radio. The school was found out of compliance with state regulations at least 33 times between 1997 and 2015, many of them in instances where students were harmed, as detailed in reports obtained via public-records requests from the state Department of Early Education and Care.
In 2001, a school employee went to jail for indecent assault of a student. Two years earlier, a 16-year-old student died when a speeding car driven by a Chamberlain staffer crashed, leading to a conviction for vehicular manslaughter.
More recently, two sets of parents sued the school, alleging a failure of care leading to serious injuries after their troubled teen-age daughters jumped out of second-story windows in separate incidents. In two instances, one in 2013, the early-education department reports found support for allegations that Chamberlain staffers had sexual relationships with students.
Chamberlain said in written statements that the lawsuits, filed last year, are “utterly without merit,” and that no staffers “had any idea” that the students would jump before the accidents occurred. The school takes sex abuse and staff-student sexual relations seriously and has moved quickly to remove teachers accused of any wrongdoing, the statements say. “Sexual abuse has not been prevalent at Chamberlain," MacLeish wrote.
William Doherty co-founded Chamberlain in 1976, following passage of a state law that compelled public schools that couldn’t meet the needs of special-education students to pay for private schools that could -- often at many times the cost of educating mainstream students.
That law, and its federal counterpart, have helped build a network of 167 programs in Massachusetts with over $700 million revenues and 7,500 students, that draw students from around the world, according to an industry association. In-state students pay $118,000 a year at Chamberlain, out-of-staters about $137,000.
Doherty, who declined to be interviewed for this story, was paid $325,880 as executive director in the year ended August 2015, according to the school’s financial statement to the state.
The school serves a troubled group of youths, 95 percent of whom have been hospitalized for psychiatric issues before enrolling, according to Sarah Norfleet, a Chamberlain spokeswoman. She said the school has helped many troubled students go to college. Chamberlain has moved away from restraints and only uses them now to protect students from self-harm, Norfleet said.
School officials gave reporters a tour of the campus, including tidy dormitories, landscaped gardens, a swimming pool and art room filled with student paintings and colored masks.
“We’ve always been transparent," said Norfleet.
Several parents praised the school for helping their children. Laura Matacchiera of Hainesport, New Jersey, said the school has a caring staff that is helping her 19-year-old, who is on the autism spectrum and has been hospitalized for mental disorders in the past. “If it wasn't for Chamberlain, I wouldn't know where my daughter would be," she said, breaking into tears.
Sharon Firester, of New York City, said that her teen-age son, who suffers from schizophrenia and other disorders, enrolled at Chamberlain three years ago. Now he is involved in school, engaged and was looking forward to a summer field trip to Europe. “It saved his life," she said.
Other students tell unhappier stories. Michaela O’Brien said her life is haunted by the school. Now 33 years old, O’Brien said she came to Chamberlain seeking help for bulimia, anxiety, and self-injurious behavior in 1998, and can’t dislodge memories of inappropriate touching by a staffer in charge of monitoring her dorm.
The monitor, Jason R. Carreiro, was found guilty of indecent assault and battery and was sentenced to 30 months in jail, court records show. Carreiro couldn’t be reached for comment. O’Brien and her parents settled a lawsuit against Chamberlain and its administrators alleging a failure to protect her in 2004 on undisclosed terms.
Norfleet said Chamberlain reported Carreiro to the police and fired him.
“It was tragic,” her statement said.
“We are fortunate that at Chamberlain, we haven’t experienced this since.”
Another Chamberlain staffer was fired during this time period after admitting to having sex with an 18-year-old student, according to an early-education department report.
The state report determined Chamberlain did not have “adequate policies and procedures to protect female residents from male staff persons.”
Chamberlain officials said that when they learned about the allegations of a staff-and-student student relationship at that time, they fired the employee and contacted the police. A police investigation resulted in no charges because the student was “of age and the sex was consensual,” according to the state investigative report. Perkins, the Middleborough police chief, declined to comment.
A teacher fired
In 2013, Chamberlain officials were faced with new allegations that one of its teachers was getting too close to students and supplying them with drugs.
When questioned, one student disclosed a sexual relationship with her, and he and another student said the teacher sold them marijuana, according to a report by the state’s early-education department. State investigators talked to two residents who said the teacher “had a sexual relationship with one of them” and determined that “the evidence supports the allegations of sexual abuse and neglect.”
The teacher was fired, and police “were made aware” of the “possible selling of marijuana and sex abuse,” the report said. Middleborough police declined to comment.
Plymouth District Attorney spokeswoman Beth Stone said her office was notified about the allegations. “We thoroughly reviewed the facts of the case and found the two alleged victims to be over the age of consent and willing, and the investigation was closed out," she said.
MacLeish said the school dismissed her after an investigation found she had been communicating with students on Facebook using a pseudonym, which was considered a violation of the school’s “boundary” policies.
The following year, a 17-year-old autistic boy attending Chamberlain was hospitalized for four days at Boston Children’s Hospital after being found “unresponsive,” hospital records show.
State investigators found that it was likely an “unprescribed medication.”
The school implemented a “corrective action plan," records show, including examining protocol on doling out medication.
The boy’s mother, Renee Mazer, said that whether the incident occurred by accident or was an act of self-harm, the school is at fault for not keeping her boy safe. Mazer, who lives near Philadelphia, said she wants him to leave Chamberlain, but her ex-husband has full custody of the boy and disagrees with her. The father declined to comment for this story, and asked The Eye not to use his minor son’s name. Mazer said “I am trying to save my kid’s life."
MacLeish said no one knows what caused the boy to take ill. Chamberlain’s work to limit medication errors at the school has reduced them to a rate far below most local hospitals, he said.
Another former student, Laura Shea of Westwood, Massachusetts, said she was bullied and harassed at Chamberlain during 18 months there, and school officials did nothing to stop it. She said she arrived at the school struggling with anxiety and depression and left in 2013 with post traumatic stress and a severe eating disorder, dropping about a third of her weight in months.
She said staff should have intervened when students called her "whore" and "slut," and boys slapped her butt in line. She said she’d see student fights or restraints – sometimes with students held face down with their arms pinned down by several adults, about every other day. When she complained, she said, staff told her to “toughen up.” As she began to skip meals, she said she asked for nutritional help and was denied.
"It was a toxic environment," said Shea, now 20 years old and a student at the University of Vermont. "They never offered any kind of support or anything. I did become withdrawn physically. I was broken."
One former Chamberlain parent, Jaclyn Dinan, said she was thrilled to enroll her autistic son there two years ago. Concerned that he was isolated among more severely disabled children at his former school, Dinan said she thought her 11-year-old would have a better chance making friends.
Instead, Dinan soon found him begging to come home. She said he told her older boys had threatened to rape him and a teacher slapped him when he walked away from her instead of heeding her directions to stay put. Later, Dinan said her son recounted another staff member telling him he would end up in prison, where he’d be orally raped.
Soon after, he ran away from the school and was found hours later on the side of a busy road, she said.
Dinan said she pulled her son out of Chamberlain days later, concerned that the school couldn’t protect him. Dinan said that when she was looking for a place for her son, she tried to investigate news reports for problem signs, but could find little information.
If she’d been aware of past problems – such as those detailed in the state licensing reports -- she said wouldn’t have put her son at Chamberlain.
MacLeish said Chamberlain is an open facility, and “if a child decides to leave the school property, they are not stopped from doing so," he said. The school would be willing to release licensing reports if other schools, hospitals and child-care centers also did so, according to MacLeish.
Meghan Murphy’s parents, Linda Strachan and Kent Murphy, say their daughter has never fully recovered from the near drowning in the Taunton River. Her core body temperature dropped to about 90 degrees, a deep chill that kept her in a nearby hospital for four days, they said.
Chamberlain officials said that when she took off, staff members followed her, but couldn’t catch up. They said they called police when she jumped into the river. One staffer jumped after her into the river to try to rescue her, the school said.
Later, state investigators said it was "concerning" that despite Meghan's history of troubles, there was no safety plan to protect her at the school.
Strachan, of Nantucket, Massachusetts, said she the school wasn’t equipped to care for her daughter, who struggles with a mix of disabilities, including a bipolar disorder and autism. Meghan “has lost so much," she said. “She would have been better off here.”
This story was produced and published in collaboration with Boston's WBUR public radio. WBUR's Shannon Dooling contributed reporting.