The unlicensed therapeutic boarding school once run by Pinal County Sheriff and Congressional Candidate Paul Babeu used a variety of abusive and dangerous punishments to discipline students with special needs and conditions, according to a Massachusetts Office of Child Care Services lawsuit and investigation.
The state launched its case against DeSisto in May 2000, directly in the middle of Babeu’s tenure at the school. Massachusetts’ ongoing lawsuit to force DeSisto to become licensed and stop abusive and dangerous practices eventually drove the school to shut down in 2004, records show.
Investigators interviewed staff and students as well as reviewing DeSisto’s records and logs. In late 2001, in an overview of its case, the state wrote, “The school uses discipline that is overly punitive and dangerous; and students are denied their basic human rights.”
In a home video recorded in 1999, Babeu spoke in detail about punishments cited in the state’s lawsuit. In fact, the disciplinary terms used by Babeu directly match the terms listed in the state’s investigation.
See extended clips of Babeu discussing the methods in the video above. For a transcript of what Babeu said, click here.
For reference, we’ve listed the types of discipline used at DeSisto and other safety issues that were documented in October 2001 by state investigators. The following statements were pulled directly from state documents. We also included key quotes Babeu made in the video about the specific methods.
“’Cornering’ another behavior management technique used at DeSisto (also referred to as “time out”), is punitive and dangerous. This technique, which imposes periods of isolation and seclusion for up to months at a time, contravenes the application regulations. Cornering involves the practice of having a student sit on a metal chair facing the corner; during “time outs” the student’s chair faces outward. While in the corner, the student may not make eye contact, may not receive communication from family members, and may not attend classes.”
This technique imposes periods of isolation and seclusion for up to months at a time
“DeSisto ‘cornered’ one student, whose diagnoses included bi-polar disorder, ADHD, and impulse control disorder, for weeks on end. As a result, the student became depressed, his mood stabilizing medication fell below therapeutic levels, and he began to urinate and defecate on himself. The student was taken from the ‘corner’ to the hospital for treatment of pneumonia and was then returned from the emergency room to the ‘corner,’ rather than to his bed.”
“DeSisto routinely deprives students of human rights when it ‘farms’ them, by sending them to a separate dormitory (which it calls the ‘farm’) or by ‘farming,’ the dormitory in which they live. DeSisto has ‘farmed’ students for days, weeks, months, and even more than a year.
When DeSisto ‘farms’ a student, he or she may not attend classes; must wear a ‘Dickie’ style jumpsuit; must go to the bathroom as a group with other farmed students; may be deprived of food and water for up to eight hours until he or she completes chores; and may have no contact with home, for months at a time.”
Grouping / Hand Holding / Spacing
“’Spacing’ and ‘grouping’ mean students are responsible for staying within arm’s length of each other. If they do not maintain ‘spacing,’ they may be ‘hand held,’ such that they are required to hold hands with another student when they go anywhere, including the bathroom and the showers. While under this restriction, students do not attend classes.”
“Students are routinely used assist staff in restraining students by holding limbs or otherwise performing restraints. The use of students to assist in restraints is an extremely dangerous practice, associated with a high risk of serious injury or death for the student being restrained and high risk of injury for an untrained student administering a restraint.”
“No staff member has the necessary training to assist in restraining a student.”
“DeSisto routinely restrains students for mere disobedience and for lengthy periods of time. This practice violates OCCS regulation and national standards regarding restraint. DeSisto incident reports reveal the following restraints: a student who had refused to stop leaning against the wall was restrained for several hours; a student remained in a three-person restraint for an entire day; and a student who had thrown a plate engaged in a verbal argument was restrained for five-and-a-half hours.”
“DeSisto’s use of restraint for mere disobedience is excessively punitive.”
Other Violations of Basic Human Rights
“Students are routinely denied their basic human rights through strip searches, denial of permission to use bathroom facilities in privacy, and denial of all means of communication with family members.”
“DeSisto also denies basic human rights by conducting strip searches and by having students use the toilet in the presence of staff and/or fellow students. DeSisto also has its students routinely take group showers, denying them privacy and leading to instances of sexual abuse.”
“DeSisto also gives students’ possessions to charity if they leave the program without permission for over 24 hours. DeSisto also routinely withholds class credits and transcripts when a student withdraws from the school.”
“DeSisto also denies basic human rights by conducting strip searches..."
“DeSisto denies students’ basic human rights by depriving them of minimal communication and visitation with family members, as a form of punishment. DeSisto staff monitor all calls for new students, disconnecting calls if the student complaints about a DeSisto practice. DeSisto only allows new students one ten-minute phone call per week. If a student complains about a school practice, staff routinely informs parents that their child has fabricated the event and is attempting to manipulate the parent into withdrawing the student from school.”
“DeSisto has also disciplined students for making statements about what they have experienced or pressured them into recanting such statements. DeSisto routinely censors and withholds mail from students and restricts family visits.”
No Background Checks / No Qualifications
“Specifically, given the serious diagnoses and needs of the students, staffing levels fail to meet minimally acceptable standards of safety and protection; staff are untrained in how to safely care for and supervise the students, including how to administer a restraint that does not present a high risk of injury or asphyxiation.”
“No staff member at DeSisto has the necessary qualification under OCCS regulations to have unsupervised contact with students.”
“No staff member has current CPR and First Aid certification.”
“DeSisto was not able to produce documentation to OCCS that it contacted a criminal background check for 17 of its 27 staff members.”
“Untrained staff also provide ‘group therapy’ for students.”
Other Safety Issues
“DeSisto presently has only 27 direct care staff, half of the number of staff necessary to adequately protect the students. Consequently, DeSisto is chronically understaffing its program, thus placing the residents in jeopardy.”
“This chronic lack of staff results in dangerous practices. One of these practices, which DeSisto refers to as ‘shifting,’ involves the placement of a mattress for a student or staff member in front of the dormitory bedroom door, thereby preventing students from exiting the room. DeSisto employs this practice when it deems a student at risk for running away or acting out. DeSisto uses bars and furniture to blockade windows and also routinely places mattresses for students on the floor, to prevent runaways and a means of discipline, thereby placing more students in a room than it can safely accommodate.”
“As a result of understaffing, students are used to supervise other students in an inappropriate and unsafe manner.”
“Students are used to strip search other students when students are new to the school."
“Students are used to strip search other students when students are new to the school. One student reported that he is responsible for bringing medications from the nurse’s office to the dormitory, counting the medication and preparing it for distribution and to other students. In one recent incident, it was a student who called another student’s parents to inform them their son had run away from the program. This use of students (who are paying tution of approximately $65,000 a year to have their own needs met by the DeSisto program) goes well beyond any peer mentoring role and jeopardized the student’s well-being. “