HAVERHILL — Five staff members at the Alternative School have been placed on administrative leave, pending an investigation by the Department of Children and Families.

Schools Superintendent Margaret Marotta confirmed Friday that one staff member was placed on leave on March 29, and four more were placed on leave the following Tuesday. 

Though Marotta declined to identify the employees who were suspended, two staff members and School Committee member Maura Ryan-Ciardiello confirmed that one of those suspended is Alternative School Principal John DePolo.

“It’s serious, it’s concerning ... and we just want to be clear that the safety of everyone at our schools — the staff and the students — is our utmost priority, so we’re reacting very seriously to a very serious concern,” Marotta said. She added that it is the administration’s policy to suspend any staff member when there is an open investigation. 

Marotta said the school district reported the staff members to DCF and the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education after it was reported that the employees inappropriately intervened in an “attempted de-escalation with a student who was in an escalated state.”

When reached for comment, DePolo said “it would not be appropriate for me to comment” at this time.

The Alternative School, or HALT, is a special education program in the St. James School for students with “social and emotional disabilities” who “need a very small, structured, intensive, therapeutic day school,” according to the superintendent. 

“Unfortunately at times, kids can become aggressive,” Marotta said.

The staff at HALT are trained in de-escalation and physical intervention methods for restraining students who are in danger of harming themselves or others. The superintendent said the staff must undergo a several day training course at the start of their employment at HALT, and undergo a daylong refresher course annually.

Despite the allegations against the staff members, teachers, parents and School Committee members came to DePolo’s defense Friday, blaming drastic changes in administration policy for increased violence and assaults against teachers at the school.

“This is the first year that I’ve gotten emails from parents and staff members, coming to the School Committee, about what is happening,” said Ryan-Ciardiello. “Under the new administration, there has been an uproar from parents and teachers who are not happy with what’s happening there. I’ve also spoken to several staff members who reached out to me and to the entire School Committee to say they are not happy with how the school is being run under the new administration.” 

Ryan-Ciardiello said she was told that other staff members are afraid to come forward out of fear of retaliation by the administration.

“I was told they want their jobs, they love what they’re doing but that things have been disruptive,” she said.  

According to a letter sent to the School Committee by HALT teacher Jessica Wright, DePolo was also suspended in October for restraining a student. Marotta did not name DePolo, but did confirm that two HALT staffers were suspended in October. A spokesperson at DCF confirmed that an investigation was conducted at the school at that time.

“John has made every effort to not be involved in setting limits that have required hands-on intervention,” Wright wrote in her letter. “However, in this situation, it was clear that John needed to be involved for the safety of his student and staff. John was put on leave because he was forced to be part of a restraint of a child who was assaulting staff.”

Wright added that the student “repeatedly kicked and punched staff and head-butted two staff” and said DePolo was “kicked in the ribs” and needed to have X-rays.

“The first time John was put on leave, we as a staff agreed to observe the results of the decisions being made, regarding his leave, and waited for his return,” Wright said. “This time, however, we need to make public how the decisions being made and the policies being put in place are not only hurting a good man’s reputation, but are having a devastating effect on his students left in his absence.”

Wright said that the new administration under Marotta has expressed “concerns of the use of hands-on when setting limits, no matter the level of safety that is at risk for students.”

Mayor James Fiorentini confirmed that staff members from the Alternative School recently met with him in his office.

“They came to me to express their support for their principal, John DePolo, and the program,” Fiorentini told The Eagle-Tribune. 

Stephanie Viola, a paraprofessional at Haverhill Public Schools, worked her last day at Haverhill TEACH, another special education program in the St. James School, on Friday. Prior to the 2018-2019 school year, DePolo was also the principal of that program. 

DePolo “was the one who hired me and he’s an awesome guy and he could walk through the school and tell you ever single kids name,” said Viola, who transferred to Golden Hill Elementary because of the work environment at TEACH. 

Viola said that last year — her first at TEACH — she frequently told people she loved her job; but this past school year has been “one of the hardest years of my life.”

“It’s not a place that I wanted to continue working. I absolutely adore and love the kids. I will say that I think the staff has changed because of administrative changes,” Viola added.

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