By Connie Matthiessen
A reader recently brought an important story to our attention.
It's a horrifying account of abuse at the O.D. Heck Developmental Center, a state-run institution for people with autism and other developmental disabilities in New York State. The article, an investigation by reporter Danny Hakim, was published on Sunday in the New York Times. As the article reveals, abuse at the facility culminated in the 2007 death of 13-year-old Jonathan Carey. Carey, who was born with severe autism, died of asphyxiation after a facility employee sat on him to restrain him in the back of a van. Another employee observed what was happening, but didn't intervene. While the boy was suffocating beneath him, the man told him, "I could be a good king or a bad king." The O.D. Heck employees did several errands, including a stop at the video store, before reporting Carey's death.
According to a number of witnesses, Carey's abuse wasn't a singular event. A former staffer described rough treatment of patients by overworked and underpaid Center employees, and a cult-like atmosphere in which workers covered up the violence. During one inspection, the New York State Health Department found 18 serious injuries of residents in a five-month period –- this in a facility that had only 57 residents, according to the Times. Perhaps most disturbing, the investigation uncovered similar problems at other state-run facilities for the developmentally disabled in New York (an employee at another institution boasted on Facebook about "beating retards").
Our reader, whose name is Lori, wrote to us about Jonathan Carey because, after reading the Times article, she did an online search of the O.D. Heck facility and found that it received a 4 out of 5 star community review on GreatSchools. She wrote:
"…Your site rates this as a good school (4 out of 5 stars). I was shocked...I hope Jonathan's death will serve as an opportunity for GreatSchools to improve their process of review and evaluation so that a school with repeated abuse is not listed as a desirable school..."
We always value hearing from readers, and this letter gave us pause, especially after reading the sickening accounts of abuse in the Times' article. We checked O.D. Heck's rating on our site and found that the 4 out of 5 star rating is based on the only review of the facility by a community member, who wrote in 2008: "The staff and teachers at this program are very caring, encourage independence, and go above and beyond to meet the needs of the individuals they serve."
Lori is right that families come to our site and expect to find informed, quality school reviews. GreatSchools has 125,000 elementary, middle, and high schools in our directory and we provide wide coverage and up-to-date academic information for each of these schools. While we strive to paint the fullest picture possible of each school on our site -- one that goes beyond the test scores –- gathering qualitative information on so many schools around the country is a daunting task.
We currently rely on members of the school community -- parents, students, teachers, and staff -- to supplement the information we provide in the form of community school reviews. We also encourage readers to comment if they disagree with another community member's review of a school –- this is particularly important. For some schools we get 200 reviews; in other cases, we get none. In this case we got just one review, and it clearly didn't reflect what was going on there.
Our ratings shouldn't be the last word on a school, and we don't intend them to be. We encourage parents to do their own research on schools they are considering for their children. After checking out the GreatSchools Rating, go online and check news sites in the area. Google the school -- under web and news -- and see what you find. Talk to other parents who know the school, and to students and teachers as well. Visit the school if you possibly can.
Finally, if you have experience with a school, good or bad, please write a review on our site and let us know. We rely on readers like Lori – and you -- to get the best possible information about schools.
Additional note: The O.D.Heck Developmental Center has been removed from our site because it is an institution, rather than a school.