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Minneapolis Promises 'Due Diligence' on Preferred Superintendent Pick

UPDATED

Minneapolis Public Schools will continue to vet its preferred superintendent candidate, Sergio Paez, amid allegations of abuse and neglect of students at a Holyoke, Mass., school while Paez was superintendent of that district.

The Minneapolis school board voted 6 to 3 last Monday to choose Paez as its new schools chief. Days later, the Boston-based Disability Law Center released a report that alleged that students who attended a program that served emotionally disabled students at a Holyoke school had been subjected to psychological and emotional abuse and had been excessively punished, including for minor offenses.  Late Monday, WAMC in Massachusetts reported that Hampden District Attorney Anthony Gulluni was beginning an investigation into the allegations contained in Disability Law Center's report.

The Minneapolis school district said in a statement on Friday that it had been unaware of the abuse allegations until they were released on Wednesday. The district said it had conducted a thorough background check on Paez, including having discussions with Paez's professional references. One of those individuals worked for the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, the district said. 

On Monday, spokesman Dirk Tedmon said the board was continuing its "due diligence" and following up with individuals in Massachusetts and Holyoke before any final decision is made.  As of Monday afternoon, Paez was still in consideration for the job. 

After the Disability Law Center released its findings last week, Paez told the Boston Globe that the district had conducted an investigation into the allegations of abuse at the Peck Full Service Community School, but had found no wrongdoing. Paez, who came to Holyoke as superintendent in 2013, also acknowledged to the paper that there were "some issues that we were working on." 

The state voted in April to take over the Holyoke school district following years of poor academic performance that predated Paez's tenure.

The Disability Law Center conducted the investigation for the state. The report said that children had been thrown to the floor for refusing to move; slapped; threatened with injury; slammed against the walls; and tackled to the ground. One child was placed in a locked closet with the lights turned off, according to the report.

The report said that children in the program were secluded from social and educational opportunities offered at the school. They entered and left through a separate door, were subjected to pat-downs, and were not allowed to go on field trips or to school dances, according to the report.

According to the Disability Law Center, Paez had been made aware of the complaints and investigation, and a teacher in the school had written to Paez about some of the allegations before the state review. 

The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families told the Boston Globe on last week that the agency had conducted four investigations into the school since Oct. 2014 and had unearthed instances of physical abuse involving restraint. Another investigation is underway, the paper said.

The Minneapolis Public Schools said Friday that it was taking the allegations seriously. Two school board members will make a trip to Holyoke later this week to continue vetting Paez, the district said. The topic is also expected to come up when the school board meets on Tuesday.

"The Board is committed to finding and evaluating all pertinent information regarding the Holyoke issues before finalizing a contract with Paez," the district said.

The state-appointed receiver of the Holyoke school district, Stephen Zrike, Jr., said he has been making changes. A new acting principal is now in charge of the school, new teachers have been hired, and an expert advisor has been brought in. 

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