Allegations of abuse under Páez’s watch surface

Details emerge in a report less than 48 hours after Sergio Páez is named Minneapolis superintendent

Sergio Páez spoke with community members during a Dec. 2 event at Webster Elementary School. Credit: Dylan Thomas

A report released Wednesday details allegations of abuse at a public school in Holyoke, Mass., during former superintendent Sergio Páez’s tenure.

The abuse allegedly occurred in a program that serves children in grades 4–8 with emotional and behavioral disabilities. The report was released less than 48 hours after Páez was selected by the Board of Education here as the next superintendent of Minneapolis Public Schools, and the allegations it contains never came up during the search process.

In a press release issued Wednesday, Massachusetts’ Disability Law Center reported its investigation substantiated “a disturbing pattern of excessive physical restraint and psychological abuse of youngsters by staff at the Peck School in Holyoke, Massachusetts.”

The report includes allegations that disabled students enrolled in the Therapeutic Intervention Program were injured after being slapped and punched by teachers. It raised questions about the use of restraints and time outs, according to local media reports.

Reached by phone Thursday morning, Páez said claims made by parents of children in the program were investigated “and there was no finding of any wrongdoing from the administration or the schools.”

“Nonetheless, (it’s) a very challenging situation,” he said.

“I’m working right now with the attorneys to make sure that all that evidence is being submitted to the district to make sure they understand that was something that we took care of it and we oversaw the process,” he continued. “We understood it was a serious issue. Every time there’s an allegation of child neglect or child abuse, it’s extremely important for the administration to take care of it.”

Minneapolis School Board Member Carla Bates said the allegations in the report made her “sick to (her) stomach.”

It was Bates who urged her colleagues to conduct a site visit in Holyoke following the vote to hire Páez. A district spokesman said Thursday that board members Tracine Asberry and Josh Reimnitz are tentatively scheduled to make the trip Dec. 18.

“I feel like we got a little touch of grace in that we decided to do a site visit,” Bates said.

Páez led Holyoke schools for two years, but this spring the chronically underperforming district was placed under state control. The state-appointed receiver, Stephen Zrike, said he was “deeply concerned” and called the allegations in the report “troubling” in a press release issued by the district.

“The report reveals that the program failed to provide our students with a safe environment, carry out individualized education programs, or train staff in managing difficult behaviors and de-escalating conflict,” Zrike wrote in the press released. “These findings constitute abuse and neglect under federal Protection and Advocacy statutes.”

The investigation by the Disability Law Center began in April, about the same time Páez’s time as superintendent ended. Zrike said the district has taken steps to resolve the situation, including additional staff training and regular home visits to improve parent outreach. The use of restraints has reportedly decreased.

Stanley Eichner, litigation director for the Disability Law Center, said a Holyoke schools employee repeatedly brought concerns about the Therapeutic Intervention Program to top district officials in Holyoke and at one point included them in a letter to Páez.

“It’s her strong sense that information was directly shared with the superintendent but no real strong response was forthcoming,” Eichner said.

“The district is large enough and has enough challenges that you wouldn’t expect a superintendent to know each and every thing that’s going on,” he added. “But in this instance there were pervasive problems, and it would be fair to raise a question if someone in that position knew or should have known.”

Páez said the investigation was not discussed with members of the Minneapolis Board of Education or the firm that ran the search process.

“No, because it was never, in my mind, a significant issue,” Paez said, adding that districts routinely deal with issues of student safety, including weapons and assaults, and occasionally must respond to lawsuits.

Minneapolis Public Schools is not named in an ongoing lawsuit claiming metro-wide school segregation but its resolution could have significant implications for the district. In 2014, the district reached a voluntary settlement with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights after an investigation found evidence that black students were subject to discriminatory discipline practices.