MONTPELIER — An investigation into allegations of abuse and neglect at Kurn Hattin Homes for Children in Westminster is expected to be concluded soon, said legal counsel for the Vermont Agency of Education.
The investigation, when complete, will be handed to the Agency of Education, which will then review it and send it with any necessary recommendations to the State Board of Education, said Emily Simmons, general counsel for AOE.
The investigation was prompted by a report provided by the Vermont Department of Children and Families, a report that contained matters, “if true,” are concerning, said Simmons.
“We have received many complaints regarding Kurn Hattin since the investigation had been contemplated and opened,” she said. “But the actual impetus was not constituent or student or family complaints. It was the action by DCF.”
According to the DCF report, investigators found in student files “multiple incidents” that should have resulted in child abuse and regulatory investigations but were not reported to the state. Those incidents included sexual touching between students and incidents that directly affect the health and safety of the students.”
“It is clear that there is inadequate supervision in the cottages,” states the report. DCF found that while “the sexualized activities described by the boys ... are largely developmentally normative ...” Kurn Hattin employees were at fault for a lack of supervision that allowed the conduct to go on longer than it should have.
“The sexualized behavior that occurred was described as ongoing over the past one to two years, perhaps longer according to some youth interviewed,” state DCF documents. “The fact that such a large number of youth were involved for more than a year clearly indicates that supervision was insufficient.”
Simmons said what appeared to be “a pattern of failure to report allegations of abuse and neglect” at Kurn Hattin made to DCF were “very concerning.”
The investigation team is conducting interviews with current and former students, their families and school administrators, said Simmons.
In addition, the team has received “voluminous” documentation from Kurn Hattin.
Kurn Hattin has also been the target of two law firms that are representing former students who say they experienced abuse from the 1960s through the 1980s.
Simmons, who spoke before the Senate Education Committee on Wednesday, noted that the investigation team is also looking at whether Kurn Hattin did not follow appropriate background check procedures.
Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington and the chairman of the committee, said that members of the Legislature have received emails and phone calls “with information that is very concerning with regard to Kurn Hattin.”
The committee’s hearing was the first to look into the allegations and to think about how multiple state agencies interacted to address such reports.
Campion expressed concern that there was some confusion over the roles of both the Vermont State Board of Education and the Vermont Agency of Education.
Simmons said that is a result of how the roles are outlined by state statutes.
Kurn Hattin currently has 58 students, 41 of whom are state residents. Another 14 come from New Hampshire and three from New York.
Forty-seven of those students attend and reside at the school, while another 11 attend on a daily basis but don’t live there, said Simmons.
Kurn Hattin can accept up to 100 students a year, she added.
“When the investigation is complete, the rule calls for the secretary to determine whether to recommend formal action against the approval standing of the licensee,” said Simmons.
Campion asked why the state can’t shut the school down during the investigation.
“There’s no authority for the Agency or the State Board to take ... emergency action against an approved school,” responded Simmons. “The rules have not been updated for may years. That’s long overdue.”
She noted that the investigation will probably provide “lessons learned” to help the Legislature refine its rules concerning the responsibilities of both the State Board of Education and the Agency of Education.
“There should be no debate, no discussion, on how we move forward and take lessons learned so we can avoid that kind of thing,” said Campion.
When she was asked if students currently at the school are safe, Simmons said she had faith that with all the scrutiny Kurn Hattin is receiving, the students are safe. However, she noted, there is no one from the team or the Agency or the State Board actually on site to oversee operations.
“This is document reviews and interviews,” she said.
Even if the state finds Kurn Hattin at fault, said Simmons, there are limited actions that can be taken because of the way the statutes are written. The Agency could recommend removing its approval status, she said, which would mean no state tuition could be sent there.
Kurn Hattin is an approved independent school, said Simmons, but this just means that it is able to take tuition funds from sending school districts that allow students to go elsewhere in-state for their education.
An independent school that doesn’t take state tuition funds can still operate in the state, but it would have to get its funding from fees or charitable donations.
The school could lose its accreditation through the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, which would essentially close the school.
Last year, Kurn Hattin met with DCF and decided to terminate its residential treatment license.
“It was a mutual decision,” said Simmons, “that the school was not to have any students receiving residential treatment.”
Simmons said the school agreed to relinquish the license as it has not offered residential treatment for several years.
According to the state, “A residential child care facility is a place ... which provides a planned program aimed at behavioral change, administered by qualified staff, for children in a twenty-four hour residential setting.”