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Strangulation, humiliation, and fear: A look at the alleged hazing at the Mass. court officer academy

One court officer said they were "petrified" during their time in the academy and "still (have) nightmares" about the experience.

David L Ryan/Globe Staff

A report from an independent probe of the Massachusetts Trial Court Officer Academy found recruits were allegedly subjected to a number of abusive practices, including being assaulted and belittled by instructors, that created a “culture of fear” in the institution.

The review, which launched last year and concluded last month, details that the Chicopee academy’s decision to create a “paramilitary” training model in 2014 was “flawed and ill-advised” and failed to include the necessary controls and protocols for proper management, the report states.

The result was allegedly numerous incidents and scenarios where recruits were struck and strangled by staff and instructors and consistently humiliated and degraded, according to a redacted copy of the report.

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“Recruits and other percipient witnesses told The Team about repeated incidents in which recruits were struck in the face or strangled by senior Academy staff,” the report reads. “These acts were contrary to the curriculum and the Academy’s own rules and training philosophy and were outside the bounds of proper defensive tactics training, policy, and procedures.”

Investigators Nancy McGillivray, Elin Gradon, and Kevin Burke were hired in July 2021 to conduct the review of the academy, a process which included interviewing members of the most recent class and instructors.

The independent investigators were charged with reviewing policies and procedures at the academy, along with examining “the qualifications of and evaluation process for Academy management staff and instructors,” among other factors, the report states.

“We are grateful to the team for their diligence and hard work,” Trial Court Chief Justice Paula Carey and Trial Court administrator John Bello said in a statement. “In the report, the team makes a series of recommendations regarding the policies, procedures, practices, curriculum, format, and culture of the training academy. All of these recommendations are being considered and will be implemented, as appropriate, going forward.

“The report also raises serious concerns and allegations regarding conduct at and oversight of the Academy, which will require further examination,” the statement continues. “We will take all action that is necessary to address the problems outlined in the report.”

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According to a Trial Court spokesperson, Trial Court Security Director Jeffrey Morrow — listed as a “key individual” in the report — resigned from his position on Jan. 7. Two managers in the Trial Court Security Department remain on leave.

The academy is currently suspended.

“The Trial Court is exploring and developing plans for training to meet the court’s short term security needs,” officials said.

According to the report, the investigators learned that five recruits in “Class #012” were either “struck in the face or strangled during Defensive Tactics training or ‘Extra Help’ sessions.” The accounts were corroborated with witnesses, according to investigators.

“The Team also learned of a recruit who was grabbed by the neck in Class #003; a recruit who was strangled in Class #005; one who was struck in the face in Class #011 and one who was strangled in Class #011,” the report states. “Percipient witnesses corroborated these various accounts.”

Notably, the investigation team wrote that an instructor usually asked for “permission to touch” while demonstrating defensive techniques, but the question “does not permit an instructor to perform an unauthorized maneuver such as striking a recruit in the face.”

Investigators also identified a theme in their probe: “deep dissatisfaction among Academy-trained Court Officers with their Academy experience.”

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“As one Court Officer put it, the Academy is ‘held together with duct tape and bubblegum,'” the report states.

Other officers interviewed described a harsh learning environment where fear, screaming, and humiliation were common.

One new court officer said they were “petrified” during their eight weeks at the academy and “still (have) nightmares” about the experience.

While morale was low, instructor turnover was high, investigators wrote.

“Many recruits from various classes described a culture of fear, intimidation, humiliation, disrespect, punishment-based discipline, and retaliation,” the report states among its findings. “All are contrary to the Academy’s ‘fundamental training values.’ As one new Court Officer stated, ‘The staff should treat people with dignity and respect. That never happened.’ The recruits’ claims are supported by videos of the Academy classes in action.”

Another new court officer interviewed said some aspects of the job that instructors insisted would happen never came to pass.

“They taught us that we are always going to get into fights,” the officer said. “The overall sense of the entire program was aggression, [that] 90% of the time you are going to get into fights. [That] was the perception I got [and that] they gave. Always … [But] people have a good attitude toward the Court Officers and I have not experienced the aggressions the Academy said we would receive. You give what you get, attitude, communications with the public could be emphasized more.”

The report also sheds light on rituals performed at the academy “in the name of imposing military-style discipline.”

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Recruits had belongings tossed around their rooms if items were not put away properly and were given less than three minutes to shower, among other practices, according to the report.

“These rituals are time-consuming, unrelated to Court Officers’ job duties, and unnecessary,” the report states.

The report’s findings give the Trial Court an opportunity to change the academy’s culture through “setting a new agenda” that would, in turn, restore the public’s confidence in the institution, investigators wrote.

“This can be accomplished through strong leadership that provides a sense of vision, purpose, mentorship, and inspiration to the Court’s diverse workforce,” the report reads. “We are confident that with this change, all Security Department staff will achieve professional success and the Trial Court will strengthen its commitment to its mission of providing prompt and courteous service to the public by committed and dedicated professional employees.”

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