Gillis demands meeting with Applied ABC owner after second contracted employee accused of assaulting special needs children

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Applied ABC is located on East Industrial Park Dr. in Manchester.

MANCHESTER, NH – For the second time, an employee of Applied ABC, which provides the Manchester School District with staff assisting special needs students, is under arrest, accused of assaulting two children at Parker-Varney School.

“I’ve demanded a meeting with their owner for tomorrow and I’ll be asking some of the same questions around student safety,” said School Superintendent Jennifer Chmiel Gillis.  “The district team is looking at the contract and determining our next steps.”

William O’Connell, 24, of Allenstown is charged with second-degree assault and simple assault.  According to Manchester police, witnesses told investigators O’Connell on Jan. 4, 2024, threw a 7-year-old boy to the ground causing the child to suffer facial injuries.  In a second incident, on the same day but at a different time, he allegedly placed a 7-year-old girl onto the floor in a “hard manner,” but she was not injured.

O’Connell turned himself in to at police headquarters on Wednesday evening.  He was released on personal recognizance bail pending a March 7, 2024 arraignment.  He is no longer employed by Applied ABC.

On Dec. 21, 2023, another Applied ABC employee Louis Efstathiou, 69, of 349 Hanover St., #5, allegedly slapped a 7-year-old autistic boy so hard, he blackened the child’s eye and left handprints on his face. Efstathiou was fired the same day.  He is charged with second-degree assault, two counts of simple assault and endangering the welfare of a child.

Within an hour of the incident, Efstathiou was removed from the school and then fired.

In a letter sent home to students’ families on Thursday afternoon, Gillis said she was reaching out to them to let them know about a “series of disturbing incidents” at Parker-Varney involving two “outside-contracted workers who provide special education services for our students.”

Earlier on Thursday, the school district issued a news release:

“As with a prior case announced this month by police, the worker is employed by Applied ABC. The allegations are troubling enough, but especially so given that this is a second set of allegations involving employees of this company. We are reviewing the status of our agreement with this vendor, and we have made it clear to the leadership of Applied ABC that the alleged behaviors are unacceptable. They have taken immediate steps, including additional training, and increased support and oversight for their employees.

“The health and wellbeing of students in our district is paramount, and we will continue to work closely with Applied ABC to ensure that its staff are meeting our expectations for student safety,” she said.

In the letter to families, Gillis said, “Recently, two contracted workers have been criminally charged with assault following alleged incidents involving three Parker-Varney School students. This is not just a violation of the trust we place in all who work with children in our schools; these incidents violate the strict and clear rules for training and safety assurance as contracted between Applied ABC and the Manchester School District. We have taken immediate steps city-wide to ensure the safety and well-being of our students. This is our top priority and we have no tolerance for this behavior.”

Parker Varney Elementary School.
Parker Varney Elementary School.

Both O’Connell and Efstathiou immediately were removed from the school.  

“They have not and will not return,” Gillis wrote the families.  “We have also added a new, immediate layer of daily oversight in each school, which will be led by an in-school member from the district office.  That person will work closely with each school principal to meet daily with contracted special education workers to assess all activity and report back all findings.”

Gillis said they are reaching out to families directly connected to Applied ABC to answer questions and “maintain clear communication regarding how to best meet the ongoing needs of our students. Please note, we are meeting one-on-one with these families to preserve the privacy of the students who utilize these programs as part of enhanced special education throughout our district.”

The school district currently has 76 contracted Applied ABC workers employed in 17 locations. 

Manchester Ink Link wanted to know how many of these contracted employees across the state have been charged with assaulting special needs children.

“Since these are not certified educators, this is a local control issue,” Kimberly Houghton, communication administrator for The New Hampshire Department of Education said in an email.  “The New Hampshire Department of Education does not hold a license requirement for behavior technicians, nor does it collect data associated with it.”

According to a Jan. 221, 2024, memorandum Applied ABC presented to the school district, it began supplying employees to Manchester school system in 2019 when it first served three students.  Five years later, it provides 81 staffers to include 39 behavior technicians, 23 registered behavior technicians, and 12 board-certified behavior analysts.

Outside the classroom, it also provides coordination of care and direct therapy to 20 public school students at its therapy center located in the building formerly housing the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications on East Industrial Park Drive.  

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Gillis/File Photo

Gillis said Applied ABC has “been a collaborative partner, providing essential special education services to students in school and outside of the classroom. This company was selected to provide these services because they have an excellent reputation nationally for offering quality care to children. However, these alleged incidents are deeply disturbing and will not be tolerated. We are heartbroken by the violation of trust placed in these workers and will continue to cooperate fully with the MPD investigation into the recent incidents at Parker-Varney School.”

Mayor Jay Ruais issued a statement as well.  In it he said he talked with Gillis to address “these horrific incidents that occurred on school grounds.  The alleged assaults are grossly inexcusable and fall far below the high standards set by the Manchester School District for the safety and well-being of its students.”

He said this second occurrence involving employees of Applied ABC raises “serious concerns about the suitability of their services within our school system. I am deeply committed to ensuring the safety of Manchester’s children and families, and am thankful that the Manchester School District is thoroughly reviewing and assessing all existing contracts with outside employers to ensure thorough background checks are being conducted, proper training is in place and immediately providing greater supervision in our schools for contracted employees.

“Our children and families deserve better, the incidents involving Applied ABC’s contracted workers are completely unacceptable and should not be tolerated,” the mayor said.

Manchester Board of School Committee Vice Chair Jim O’Connell said, “it is shocking and appalling to me that we now have two instances from the same company in a short span of time.”

He said as a board member, “I want to be in a position to be able to guarantee to families of Manchester that their children are properly cared for and in a caring and loving environment when they are in our schools.”

He said, “These instances are beyond troubling.”  

O’Connell said he had every confidence in the school district’s ability to implement measures to ensure nothing like this occurs again.

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James O’Connell. File Photo/Andrew Sylvia

He said the easy answer to the problem would be to eliminate the contract with Applied ABC but that means “hundreds of our neediest children going without services.”

Historically, the district has had a hard time hiring paraprofessionals and behavior technicians, he said.  “There is a shortage of them generally,” he said.   

Last year, he said, the district raised pay for paraprofessionals from about $13+ an hour to $15.50 an hour.  “It turns out people are not willing to take on these jobs and I don’t think that’s a surprise to anyone,” he said.  

He faults the state with “choosing to fund education inadequately.” It particularly affects Manchester, which he said is “the least well-funded school system in the state on a per pupil basis, with the highest number of students with special needs.”

 The result of the shortages, he said, is the district has to use private companies to staff those positions.

O’Connell said it is well-known across the state that contractors provide those services in areas of shortages; it’s also well-known how the model works.

The private contractor, he said, “extracts a substantial profit” while its employees earn “exponentially more” than paraprofessionals hired by the school district.

Of course, individuals can apply to be a public school employee or, he said, “go to a third party agency and get paid more to do exactly the same job.”

He said there are plusses in working for the city, i.e. benefits, and the district does have its own paraprofessionals “but we never have enough and positions go unfilled.”


 

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Pat Grossmith

Pat Grossmith is a freelance reporter.