The Brattleboro Retreat on Linden Street in Brattleboro.

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Dear Louis Josephson, CEO, leadership team, Board of Trustees, of the Brattleboro Retreat:

I hope this letter receives you well, and I appreciate your time.

My name is Matthew Bruno. I was a mental health worker for three years at the Meadows School and Bridges Program before both were closed on December 26, 2020, as part of the Retreat’s Sustainability Plan. I don’t envy your positions, as I don’t know anything about running a non-profit mental health hospital, especially one 187-years-old. I don’t write with any spite or malice, nor am I making a special plea or complaint. None of my former colleagues, supervisors or managers know I’m writing to you. I’m writing as a gravely concerned mental health professional.

Although it wasn’t your intention, closing the 43-year-old trauma-informed school program, mid-year, wasn’t trauma-informed. It was a temporary solution. I understand financial decisions cannot be based off a day program and individual clients. Despite the Retreat’s financial struggles, real mental health work doesn’t move as quickly as money does. The ends don’t justify the means in mental health. The means are the means, and there are no ends. Everything’s always a work-in-progress. There’s an ongoing mental health crisis for children and adolescents. Once the pandemic lessens, allowing more access to care, and reporting, there’s going to be a massive influx, especially in school settings. Similar schools and districts, given their resources, programming, through no fault of their own, will be inundated with students they genuinely cannot serve in the same way Meadows and Bridges did.

We upheld a strict confidential ethical code, to protect our students’ privacy and lives. Many, even in the Retreat, didn’t know there was a school program, on the third floor of the Admissions building, connected to the Administration building. Often, former students who transitioned to public school or other programs would call to check in and thank our staff. They’d ask if staff they worked with could attend their graduations. Some advocated for themselves, asking staff to advocate for them in courtrooms. Using Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), Social Thinking, and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), students learned emotional, social and behavioral skills, as modelled by staff, to form healthy boundaries and relationships with peers. PBIS is specifically in the Vermont Department of Mental Health’s Vision 2030. We were an invaluable resource. To my immediate knowledge, we were the only place in the Retreat using PBIS. There was no Retreat effort to help our school continue.

When the pandemic began, the school was temporarily closed until September. At the time, our principal and clinical manager had just stabilized the program, after the mismanagement of previous leadership trying to expand it too quickly against staff concerns for safety and level of care for students. We were the right people in the right place to make all the difference. Over the next six months, social workers/therapists conducted weekly Zoom meetings with individual students and therapy groups. Teachers established remote classrooms. MHWs were redeployed throughout the hospital units, per union contracts, to fill the staffing crisis. It felt intimated, from the top down, by really stepping up in such a tight spot for the Retreat, there was no doubt we’d return to school. When the pandemic is over, we would’ve come out on the other side stronger than ever.

In September, there was an encompassing sense of relief and gratitude among staff and students. We adjusted physical space and therapeutic models to fit COVID-19 protocols. But two months in, we were informed the school program would close in 60 days, just before the holidays, which is the hardest time of year for students. Considering how MHWs were used to fill the staffing crisis for six months, it appears the decision to close the school was made earlier and the reason it wasn’t closed at the onset of the pandemic was to address staff shortages. The financial burdens due to the pandemic created an imperfect cover to close the school. Though it would’ve been destabilizing for our students to close the school in March, I venture it would’ve been less destabilizing for them, because they might’ve been able to cognitively connect the closure with the pandemic. Instead, students came back for two months, with their own situations in flux, only for their program to be unexpectedly closed.

On Tuesday, December 8, I was working on goodbye projects with staff. Students were quickly transitioning into other programs after the closure notice. I heard an unfamiliar voice coming down the hallway. I saw a man in a suit and tie, with an ID Badge. He appeared surprised to see us because he stopped mid-stride, waved, said “Hi,” turned around, without introducing himself. In an adjacent hall, I heard him say to another, “They have a lot of good space.” This employee was likely an administrator. It felt we and our students were just property in the way.

When Black Lives Matter protesters were demonstrating on the Common in early June, after responding to a code on a unit, I witnessed one employee say to another how funny it would be to run over the demonstrators, within earshot of several employees. I witnessed a separate employee approach the nearest supervisor, and inform them what was said, per the “See Something-Say Something” initiative at the Retreat. As far as I’m aware, nothing was done, because there was no follow-up with the employee who initially reported it. Perhaps it was never passed along in the first place or was somehow forgotten. I don’t know. I know that the first employee to receive a vaccine at the Retreat, which flies a Black Lives Matter flag on campus, was the same person this incident was first reported to. The fact that nothing was done proves despite how many Black people the Retreat quotes alongside words like hope, achievement and progress, this organization does not confront its own — perhaps unintentional — lackadaisical evil and injustice.

I know all of this is hard to hear, and it’s necessary to listen. I very much appreciate your time.

Matthew Bruno writes from Brattleboro. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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