Former student makes new allegations against Harmony Hill

Anthony Byron

Eight years after leaving Harmony Hill School, a news report brought back strong memories to 22-year-old Anthony Byron.

"Sitting at home one day watching the news and seeing that Harmony Hill has broken a kid's arm, I said nothing has changed, nothing has changed," Byron said.

He decided to tell the story of what he feels has been hidden down a private road in the forest in northwestern Rhode Island.

"We're setting these kids up for failure, that's what we're doing. And I was like, I've been quiet about it for too long. I've been trying to brush that part of my past away," Byron said.

Staff members at the school for troubled boys broke the arm of a 13-year-old eighth grader on May 31. The mother of the boy complained that she wasn't notified by the school and accuses them of trying to cover up the incident.

Rhode Island's Department of Children, Youth and Families, or DCYF, licenses the institution, and said it is investigating the circumstances around the staff-applied restraint that broke the boy's arm.

Byron said the use of restraints at Harmony Hill, known at the school by the vernacular term "slamming," was more frequent than necessary when he was a student there in 2005, and were usually provoked by the adult males on the staff.

"They will say words to antagonize you and push you and push you until they, in the end, win by calling four to six staff members into the room and dropping you to the ground," Byron said.

He said the restraints were used as a method of intimidation.

"It's such a traumatic, traumatizing experience that they use it as a weapon. When they do, they do it and they hurt you, and put you in stress positions," Byron said.

"Tell me why a bunch of staff at a group home in Rhode Island buried in the woods that nobody barely knows about can take an 11-year-old kid who mouths off to them, slam him on the ground, pin down his legs with all their body weight, and put his arms in a position so he has no chance of escaping? And when it's four to six adults on one kid, that's full blown abuse," Byron said.

Harmony Hill is located in Chepachet, in the town of Glocester. It has 82 students and accepts boys from schools in Massachusetts and Connecticut, as well as boys under the supervision of Rhode Island's DCYF. The students have developmental and behavioral issues.

The school claims on its website to provide "high-quality treatment and education to children, adolescents and their families in safe, predictable environments." It is reimbursed more than $80,000 per student, in addition to educational costs provided by the home school district of each of its students.

A spokesman for the school said restraints are used only when absolutely necessary. Phil Loscoe from the RDW public relations firm said non-invasive interventions are practiced and that any confrontation "only ends in a restraint if it is the only reasonable way for the safety of the child or those around the child to be protected."

Byron said far from it.

"If it is only as a last resort, then they must use their last resort two to three four times a week," said Byron, who was taken in by a foster parent in 2005.

Byron later joined the Army and served 10 months in Afghanistan in 2010. He said of his time in group homes and Harmony Hill in particular, "The experiences I endured in Afghanistan while fighting there as an infantryman don't even come close to the years of confinement and social deprivation and basically physical abuse I experienced in my years in DCYF custody. I would go to Afghanistan over DCYF custody a thousand times."

DCYF director Janice DeFrances has not responded to numerous requests for comment. Immediately before being appointed to her position, she was president and CEO of Harmony Hill School from 2006 to 2011.