Abused students seek more state money
By Tess Nacelewicz
Blethen Maine Newspapers Inc., February 2, 2004

"The scars are there and they're going to be there forever."


Staff photo by Gordon Chibroski Laurette

Souliere Leith of Portland recalls her experiences at the Gov. Baxter School for the Deaf between 1948 and 1960, where she says she was beaten so severely she required surgery. Laurette Souliere Leith was spanked so hard with a large wooden paddle when she was a student at the Gov. Baxter School for the Deaf that she had to have surgery for a broken tailbone.

That was just one instance of the abuse Leith says she experienced while attending the state school for the deaf from 1948 to 1960.

The mistreatment began when she first walked in the door of the school - then called the Maine School for the Deaf - at age 7. A teacher would slap her across the mouth with a ruler whenever she spoke French in class instead of English, hitting her so hard that her lips were cut and swollen. But French was the only language Leith knew because that was what her family spoke at home in Biddeford.

Three years ago, the state of Maine apologized to Leith and scores of other former students who suffered physical and sexual abuse at the school in past decades. Lawmakers set up an authority to compensate them and funded it with $6 million - acknowledging at the time that the sum would not be sufficient to address all the claims.

They were right. Now, with compensation awarded to only one-third of the 240 registered claimants, the Baxter Compensation Authority has run out of money. And the authority estimates that as many as 100 additional former students will make claims before the filing deadline in 2006.

That is why former students at the school, on Mackworth Island in Falmouth, and advocates for the deaf will come to Augusta on Wednesday to ask the Legislature's Appropriations Committee for another $6 million to fund the authority. A public hearing is scheduled to begin at 1 p.m. in Room 228 in the State House.

The funding request may face an uphill battle because of the state's tight fiscal situation. Lawmakers last week approved a series of cuts to address a shortfall of more than $100 million in the current budget. And another budget hole is expected in the new fiscal year beginning July 1.

Still, state Sen. Beth Edmonds, D-Freeport, sponsor of the bill seeking the additional money to compensate the survivors of Baxter School abuse, says the state must come up with funding. "We have to recognize that this is unfinished business the state has to take care of," she said.

Gov. John Baldacci's spokesman, Lee Umphrey, says there are a lot of valuable programs that the governor and lawmakers will try to find money for, and the compensation authority is one. "The governor is hopeful that this will be partially funded," Umphrey said.

For about a year, former students have come before the three-member compensation panel set up by the authority to present their cases.

Their stories are horrific, according to Sara Treat, a therapist who works with many of the abused students. In addition to "everyday slapping, hitting and punching," some students tell of being tied up, having their genitals whipped, and being hung naked from a tree, she said.

Some students and their parents complained to government authorities about the abuse when it was occurring. However, school officials denied it, and for years no one believed the youngsters until an investigation by the Maine Attorney General's Office in 1982 determined that physical and sexual abuse had occurred. Still, no administrators or staff were ever prosecuted, in part because the statute of limitations had run out.

John Shattuck, director of the compensation authority, says it is gut-wrenching for the survivors to relive their experiences as they tell them to the panel, whose members determine if they're eligible for compensation, and then learn there's no funding.

"It's a horrible thing to have people go through the process of putting their stories out there and have the panel say, 'You've been awarded an eligible amount' and then for me to say, 'We don't have the money,' " Shattuck said.

Of the $6 million allocated to the authority in 2001, $1.5 million was earmarked for setting up the authority, hiring and training staff and administering the program for four to five years, Shattuck says. The remaining $4.5 million was for compensation and that has now been awarded, he says.

The panel so far has heard 84 out of the 240 claims currently filed by former students and deemed 82 are eligible for awards, he says. Awards can be $25,000, $60,000 or $100,000. Shattuck says most claimants have received $60,000 awards.

Leith, now 62 and a Portland resident, plans to be in Augusta for Wednesday's public hearing. She says it's "tiring" for former students to keep going back to the state to ask for what was already promised.

"It seems that the state funds other programs so easily and we've been fighting for such a long time," she said. Still, she says, the former students are learning a lesson: "Not to give up."

The 1982 state investigation identified two men, Baxter Superintendent Joseph P. Youngs, now deceased, and the school principal, Robert E. Kelly, believed to be living in Florida, as the primary perpetrators of the alleged abuse. The two led the school from the 1960s through 1982, when they resigned, denying the allegations against them.

But Shattuck says the claimants also tell of abuse happening in the decades prior to that time, dating back to when the school was in Portland and known as the Maine School for the Deaf. "There were horrible things that happened there as well," Shattuck said.

Leith, who spoke in American Sign Language last week while an interpreter translated into English, says she entered that school in 1948, living there during the week and returning home on weekends. She had lost her hearing when she was 3 because of an illness, but retained the ability to speak French that she had before her hearing loss.

She knew no English, so the little girl was baffled when her teachers spoke in that language and expected her to read their lips. The school at that time tried to force deaf students to speak and read lips instead of using American Sign Language. " 'Same' and 'some' - they look so much the same on the lips," Leith said.

"I was so confused and didn't know why I was confused," she said. She was repeatedly hit on the mouth with a ruler for speaking French, she said. "I remember most of my teachers being very mean."

Students' education consisted of copying what the teacher wrote off the blackboard, Leith says. "There was no learning going on," she said. To this day, she struggles to write English.

The school moved to a new campus on Mackworth Island in 1957 and changed its name to the Gov. Baxter School for the Deaf, but the climate of abuse didn't change, Leith says.

She said an administrator carried a "very big wooden paddle and spanked kids." Leith says beatings fractured her tailbone, and she was hospitalized for two weeks for surgery.

Other staff members also were abusive, she says. "Four teachers were very bad and three dorm supervisors," Leith said.

Leith says her mother complained to Edmund Muskie, governor of Maine from 1954 to 1958 and then a U.S. senator from Maine. But she says that whenever state officials questioned school administrators about reports of abuse, they were told the youngsters were lying.

"I don't know why, with so many kids telling the same stories, the superintendent was believed and we weren't," Leith said. "I'm not alone. There were so many of us who were helpless. There was nobody to defend us." Leith expects to present her claim to the compensation panel within a few weeks. She says money is owed to her family because her parents, who had little health insurance, had to spend so much on her medical bills.

However, Leith said, "the point is not the money," but the fact that through compensating survivors, the state is finally beginning to take responsibility for what happened to the students under its care.

"The scars are there and they're going to be there forever," Leith said.

Staff Writer Tess Nacelewicz can be contacted at 791- 6367 or at: tnacelewicz@pressherald.com

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