Lauded School for Autism
Draws Charges of
By DAVID ARMSTRONG
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET
RANDOLPH, Mass. -- During a weekend visit home in early
July 2000, Scott Tedeman took off his shirt to get ready to shower. His father,
John, immediately saw bloody abrasions on his son's back. John Tedeman says
Scott, then 18, had similar injuries on his forehead and elbow, and looked as if
he had been on the "losing end of a vicious fight."
A state and local
police investigation determined that an instructor at Scott's school had dragged
Scott by the ankles across rough institutional carpeting when he balked at
repeatedly making his bed as part of a drill, according to a police report. The
instructor was charged with assault and battery on a disabled person but
returned to his native Japan before he could stand trial.
is autistic. The school he attended, Boston Higashi, is known and widely
respected world-wide for treating a disorder that afflicts as many as 1.5
million Americans and has no known cause or cure. But Boston Higashi's success
comes amid a number of complaints that the school's treatment practices have led
to abuse. Since 1995, police and various Massachusetts agencies have received at
least 17 abuse complaints against school staff.
Boston Higashi is one of
several autism-treatment centers to face allegations of abuse recently. Last
month, a Pennsylvania woman claimed that her autistic son died at a Bancroft
Neurohealth Inc. facility in New Jersey after his immune system was weakened
through excessive use of arm restraints and overmedication. The Camden County
Prosecutor's Office is investigating the case, a spokesman says. A spokesman for
Bancroft Neurohealth denies the family's charge. Also last month, the chairwoman
of a South Carolina autism-treatment facility quit, saying the facility failed
to investigate complaints of abuse. The facility, the Babcock Center Inc., has
denied her accusations.
Array of Therapies
a spectrum of mystifying developmental deficits, often including obsessiveness,
profound withdrawal, self-abuse and striking out at others. Diagnoses of autism
have risen nearly threefold in the past decade, and an increasing number of
families -- forced to choose from a bewildering array of therapies -- are in an
often-desperate search for help. Some treatments seem bizarre or even cruel,
such as the use of restraints and electric shocks. A current fad calls for
feeding autistic children a diet consisting solely of wild game.
Higashi approach, which a Japanese elementary-school teacher developed in the
1960s, shuns medication and restraining devices. It emphasizes repetition of
tasks, strict schedules and intense physical exercise.
In recent years,
doctors, educators and researchers have lauded the Higashi philosophy as
pioneering and humane. At Boston Higashi, students have been trained to curb
their dangerous behavior, sit attentively in class and even perform in a jazz
band. There are now five Higashi schools -- in the U.S., Japan, South Korea,
Uruguay and England -- and elements of the approach have been adopted elsewhere.
Boston Higashi, which enrolled 143 students from around the world this year,
turned away dozens of applicants.
But two separate incidents on July 7
resulted in the school firing two instructors and in pending police charges
against one of them. Randolph Police Det. James Hayward said the instructor who
will be criminally charged was caught on a school surveillance tape pulling a
student by the hair on three occasions for five to six seconds each time. The
second incident involved an instructor forcing a student to do push-ups for
inappropriate behavior, in violation of school policy. Mr. Hayward said there
were several instructors in the room when the student was made to do push-ups
and none appeared "shocked," leading him to believe it was a common practice. He
said he didn't view the push-up incident as a criminal matter. The school
reported the incidents after a staff person saw them on the surveillance
Another teacher was charged with assault last year for punching a
student in the stomach and for beating another student with a hairbrush. The
teacher was found not guilty but was fired after an internal school
investigation concluded she had abused at least one of the students. Two years
ago, still another teacher, Masataka Kunihiro, was charged with assault and
battery on a disabled person for allegedly dragging Scott Tedeman by his ankles,
leaving wounds on the student's back. Mr. Kunihiro resigned under pressure three
months after the incident and returned to Japan. Scott's parents are suing
Boston Higashi, which denies wrongdoing. Mr. Kunihiro couldn't be reached for
Robert Fantasia, director of Boston Higashi, says "cases of
abuse have been isolated" in the school's 15 years of operation, during which it
has educated 350 students. "In almost all of the cases," he says, "the school
itself has been the one to report the problem to the proper authorities and to
initiate disciplinary and corrective procedures." The school conducts thorough
background checks on employees, he says, but "can never guarantee that a human
being won't falter under the best of circumstances." He says the school is safe
for students because the few staff members who have been abusive were fired and
no instructor "has injured a student twice."
Mr. Fantasia, 60 years old,
says the school "balances the highest expectations for students to reach their
full potential" with "an environment of caring and love" and that students "are
absolutely safe" there.
remain passionate defenders of Boston Higashi. Miriam Hurwitz of Brooklyn, N.Y.,
says the school is "superior to anything in the entire world." Her 19-year-old
daughter, Sarah, was struck on the hand, arms and head with a brush and punched
twice in the stomach by a Boston Higashi teacher in May 2001, according to the
Disabled Persons Protection Commission, which investigated after two Boston
Higashi staff members reported the abuse to the administration. Mrs. Hurwitz
says she found the incident "very worrisome" but says it was the fault of one
bad employee and doesn't reflect a systemic problem. She says Sarah, who has
been a Boston Higashi student for 10 years, no longer needs tranquilizers to
sleep and can go for walks without throwing tantrums.
Jean Bowden of
Barnstable, Mass., credits Boston Higashi with producing a dramatic improvement
in her 15-year-old daughter, Abbie, who she says had been pinned face-down to
the floor while in a public-school program. Boston Higashi "saved her life,"
Mrs. Bowden says.
Virtually all parents interviewed for this article said
they were unaware of most of the complaints of abuse at Boston Higashi. The
school says confidentiality laws barred it from disclosing complaints to any
parents other than those of the children directly involved, although Boston
Higashi sent a letter in August to all parents notifying them of the Tedemans'
lawsuit and asking for their support. The school says no one has pulled out
their children as a result of the disclosure.
The nonprofit school is
situated on a 55-acre suburban campus outside Boston. It charges $100,000 a year
for residential students. Federal law requires that public-school districts pay
the full cost of educating a handicapped child if they don't offer an adequate
Boston Higashi was first investigated for claims of abuse
shortly after its 1987 founding, when the school's first special-education
director quit after a month on the job, saying that some employees were abusive.
An investigation by the state Department of Social Services found no abuse. In
1989, the agency conducted another investigation, this time into allegations
from students that staffers had punched them and hit them with hairbrushes and
sticks, and from parents that they had been denied visits and that food was
withheld from their children for misbehavior. The agency said its investigators
"concluded that there was reasonable cause to believe" that five children had
been abused at the school.
Also in 1989, the Massachusetts Office of
Child Care Services, which licenses Boston Higashi, conducted its own
investigation and found 29 violations of state code. They included an
unspecified number of "unexplained injuries" such as broken bones, bruises and
bites, in addition to force-feeding and the use of forced kneeling as
punishment. A monitor was assigned to the school until 1990, when the state was
satisfied the situation had been corrected.
Karen Tedeman, Scott's
mother, acknowledges that when some parents began complaining of abuse in the
late 1980s, she was part of an effort to discredit them. As president of the
parents association, she wrote letters attacking state officials who
investigated the abuse complaints. "It became like a cult for parents," Mrs.
Gina Green, research director for the Institute for
Effective Education in San Diego, which runs programs for autistic children,
says the Higashi method has never been subjected to meaningful assessment, such
as published, peer-reviewed studies comparing the development of Higashi and
non-Higashi autistic students over time. If the Higashi approach works, Dr.
Green says, "that should stand up to scientific scrutiny." Dr. Green has
produced research showing that one formerly popular treatment, Facilitated
Communication, didn't work. Under that approach, a parent or teacher was
supposed to hold a child's hand and "facilitate" pointing at letters on a screen
to make words. Dr. Green and other researchers have shown that the facilitator
was actually leading the child.
But Mr. Fantasia and the school's
educational advisers argue that ordinary scientific and educational measurements
don't apply to the kinds of improvements made by autistic children, such as the
ability to perform proper bathroom hygiene or to eat with utensils. "I don't
mind saying we don't have data," said Mr. Fantasia. "We have videos of before
and after, parents talking of the history of their child and hopes for the
"The judge is the parents," says Jerome Kagan, a Harvard
University professor of psychology who helped import the Higashi method from
Japan and is a member of Boston Higashi's educational advisory board. "If they
were unhappy, they would draw people out."
Some have, including Rosemary
Kane, who pulled her son Matthew in 1997 after a decade at the school. She says
Matthew, who was aggressive and often self-abusive, suffered an increasing
number of serious injuries in his last year there. She asked school officials to
consider medication for him, but they refused, in keeping with Higashi's policy
against using drugs. Since entering a new program and taking medication, Mrs.
Kane says, Matthew has had only one injury, a sprained foot, and holds a
To control students' behavior, instructors at Boston
Higashi frequently use physical "prompts," given with a "light to a firm touch,"
according to a school teaching manual. Although the school says the prompts
aren't physical restraints, one state report noted that an acceptable prompt was
holding children's arms to their sides. The school's guidelines note that "if an
upset student cannot regain self-control within the group, the teachers may
limit the student's movement in order to prevent aggressive or self-injurious
The Higashi approach doesn't allow corporal punishment, but
some former Boston Higashi staff members, including several who left the school
on good terms, blame incidents of slapping, punching and dragging either on
inadequate training or on the school's rigid structure and the influence of
Japanese culture. They say the Japanese instructors -- who make up more than a
third of the staff of 185 -- tend to be the most aggressive and to use such
harsh techniques as the bending of fingers to induce pain.
In a letter to
The Wall Street Journal, Mr. Fantasia says he believes that some former Boston
Higashi staff members who criticize the school "harbor hidden but deep-seated
resentments and biases against existing Japanese staff members." He adds that
"the work ethic of most of our Japanese staff is 10 on a scale of 1 to 10," and
"the same would never have been said of the disgruntled former
Few parents were initially as enthusiastic about the Higashi
philosophy as Karen Tedeman, who first enrolled Scott in 1987, when he was five.
At home, he had difficulty speaking and often attacked his mother, pulling her
hair, pushing her and pinching her in sensitive spots, sometimes 100 times a
day. Mrs. Tedeman says she was thrilled when the school taught Scott how to tie
his shoes, ride a bike and use eating utensils.
In his last year at
Higashi, the Tedemans became concerned about a growing number of injuries that
culminated that July weekend when Scott's father saw the injuries on his back.
Former school nurse Kelli Silvestro says Mr. Kunihiro told her Scott was hurt
when he bent down to tie his shoe in the school van and "brushed his head on the
seat's fabric." Ms. Silvestro says she was suspicious because two months
earlier, Mr. Kunihiro had brought another student to her with a swollen nose and
forehead, saying he had thrown himself into a wall during a tantrum.
Silvestro says that when she asked the other student what happened, he referred
to Mr. Kunihiro and said, "Kuni. Pow! Pow!" When she reported the student's
response to the school's head teacher, Akihiro Takamatsu, Ms. Silvestro says, he
responded, "You can't believe an autistic child." Mr. Takamatsu denies making
the comment. Ms. Silvestro was fired in March 2001. The school cites poor
performance; Ms. Silvestro says the school was retaliating against
In their lawsuit against Boston Higashi, filed in state court in
April, the Tedemans claim that school-injury reports show this was at least the
20th time Scott had been injured at the school in the preceding 10 months --
including a June incident in which he was treated at a local hospital for a gash
in his forehead, a black eye and two puncture wounds on his neck. In April 2001,
the Tedemans moved Scott to a new program on Cape Cod, where they say he has
been injury-free and less aggressive. The suit seeks unspecified money
'Adolescent Physical Activity'
In its response to
the suit, Boston Higashi denied that Scott's "alleged injuries were caused by
any mistreatment or wrongdoing" by the school. The school said the injuries were
a consequence of "adolescent physical activity" combined with Scott's "myriad"
disabilities, including autism, hyperactivity and lack of coordination. The
school also alleges that some of the injuries could have occurred while Scott
was in the care of his parents.
After the Tedeman incident, Mr. Kunihiro
was ordered to undergo training in the "different culture of Japan and U.S.A.,"
according to an internal school report that lists Mr. Fantasia as one of its
authors. Mr. Fantasia says he doesn't know why the cultural training was
The Tedemans contend in their lawsuit that finger bending is
used with impunity, because it doesn't leave marks and nonverbal children are
unable to complain about it. The State Police report on the Tedeman case quotes
school van driver Kenneth Vanleeuwen as saying he saw Mr. Kunihiro bending
students' fingers backward.
Ayumi Gates, a Japanese native who taught at
the school from 1994 to 2000, says she was shown how to use finger-bending by
another Japanese teacher, who told her it was an acceptable way to control the
children. Mrs. Gates says she never used the technique herself. School officials
say that finger-bending is not allowed and that they are unaware of any
allegations of its use.
In licensing reviews, Massachusetts officials
have praised Boston Higashi. In one review, a state regulator said it was "a
pleasure" to visit. State regulators say they aggressively monitor the school
and frequently review its policies and curriculum. They say that if the school
were unsafe, they wouldn't allow it to operate.
In some cases, regulators
have failed to interview witnesses to alleged abuse. Connecticut officials say
one of their case workers, who was visiting a Boston Higashi student on Feb. 7,
saw an instructor scream at the student and was concerned about bruises on the
student's face. The worker filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Department
of Social Services but says she was never contacted by investigators. A
spokesman from the Massachusetts agency says an investigator made several calls
to the worker but never made contact. Boston Higashi says the agency found no
In October 1999, two local women at a playground with their
children called police to say they had witnessed a Boston Higashi instructor
abuse a boy who was refusing to walk during a school outing there. "She was
dragging him by the arm, then she would start kicking his legs, yelling at him
to stand up, kicking him harder and harder," says one of the women, Lee Damore.
"It disturbed me for a long time." The women also say the instructor and two
other staff members repeatedly pulled and pushed other reluctant students while
screaming at them.
Local police filed a complaint of alleged abuse with
the Department of Social Services, a common route for such allegations. State
investigators followed up by interviewing the instructors, who denied kicking or
pushing students, according to the investigators' reports. Mrs. Damore and the
other woman, Janice Cain, say investigators never contacted them.
months later, a state report concluded that the teachers had "utilized
appropriate behavior management techniques while intervening with the children."
The state says it never interviewed the women because the police indicated they
didn't want to be contacted. The police department declines to comment. Mrs.
Cain, who spoke to police when they arrived at the park, says she never
indicated a reluctance to talk.
The state has also blamed some reports of
abuse on ignorance of the Higashi way. The mother of a new Boston Higashi
student said she witnessed several incidents of abuse in 1997, including a
teacher who grabbed a student by the neck and dragged him into the gym. A state
investigation concluded that "visitors to Higashi may misunderstand the
regimentation of the program and may consider the treatment of children by staff
to be harsh and inappropriate." The parent pulled her child from the
Write to David Armstrong at email@example.com
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