Almost Five Years after Abuse Reports Shut Eagleton School, Some Plaintiffs Have Been Paid
By Heather Bellow
December 23, 2020
GREAT BARRINGTON — Several lawsuits filed by former students who allege rampant abuse at a now-shuttered boarding school were settled this year for undisclosed amounts. Other lawsuits are pending.
Three lawsuits against the Eagleton School, its founder and former director Bruce Bona, as well as staff, have settled with former students of the school for boys ages 9 to 22 with emotional, behavioral and cognitive disabilities.
Two suits are pending — one in U.S. District Court in Springfield, the other in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston.
In two cases, settled in federal court, the former students had asked for $9.9 million and $1 million. Chester Tennyson, their attorney, said he could not reveal the amount of the settlements. One of his cases is pending.
Another suit filed in 2016, on behalf of six students, asked for $10 million in damages. Their attorney did not respond to messages.
The suits stem from what former students, parents and guardians say was a long-standing culture of violence that sometimes resulted in broken bones and other injuries. They also allege neglect, denial of medical attention, verbal and emotional abuse and excessive use of improper physical restraints.
Court documents for one lawsuit settled in Berkshire Superior Court said staff also punished students of parents who called police about their concerns.
In 2015, Great Barrington police began investigating reports of abuse and injuries, and the state Department of Early Education and Care intervened with sanction orders. In March 2016, the agency stripped the school of its license. One state report also said that school staff had a “systemic propensity” to hide or cover up incidents with students.
The state had learned this and more from a late-night raid Jan. 30 of that year by about 50 town and state police. Police alleged that staff had tampered with evidence like surveillance footage.
The search led to indictments of 18 school staff, out of which one received jail time, for six months. One man was found not guilty; one case was dropped. Punishments for the rest ranged from probation to a $500 fine to community service.
In 2018, the bank foreclosed on the 38-acre school property, and eventually sold it off in pieces.
Former students describe violence and humiliation used as tactics to control students. One student told The Eagle in 2018 that he recalled his limbs were twisted to the point of breaking during a restraint.
Court and other documents outline brutality that includes a staff member slamming one student’s head into a metal table, which resulted in face and lip lacerations, as well as a chipped tooth.
Tennyson's clients include one who had his eye orbit fractured after he allegedly was punched repeatedly in the face. He said that the statute of limitations and the age of the young men could prevent more from coming forward.
He said the three-year statute begins when a child reaches 18, giving them until their 21st birthday to file charges or a lawsuit. Depending on what state the child is from, the timing could differ. And if a child is declared incompetent, the statute of limitations can be extended.
Immediately after the 2016 raid, the school hired consultants, as well as attorney Eric MacLeish, who, at the time, worked for a firm that represented schools like Eagleton. MacLeish is known for being portrayed in the movie “Spotlight” as an attorney helping sexual abuse victims of Catholic clergy make secret settlements that some say aided a vast church cover-up.
Bona founded the school in 1977. Around the time of the school's shutdown, the $141,000 to $149,000 yearly tuition, for most students, usually was paid in concert by school districts and the state.
In standard reviews in 2007 and 2013, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education found that the school was operating in such a way that it was not meeting students' needs.
Heather Bellow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-329-6871. On Twitter @BE_hbellow.