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This December marks the 20th anniversary of an unprecedented state program to compensate hundreds of abuse victims who attended a state-run public school in Falmouth between the 1950s and 1970s.
The Baxter Compensation Authority was a governmental body assembled by lawmakers in late 2001. Its purpose was to provide money and therapeutic resources to adult former students who had been physically and sexually abused while attending the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf, the state’s only public education option for deaf and hard-of-hearing students.
These days, some advocates say the Baxter Compensation Authority not only helped the state of Maine take accountability for one of the deepest injustices in its history, it helped achieve steady policy changes affecting people with disabilities going forward.
They also recall how it almost didn’t happen.
The program prompted “an increase of awareness about the deaf community” that made it easier to advocate for disability rights, said Michelle Ames, a deaf services program director with Disability Rights Maine, the state’s protection and advocacy agency for people with disabilities.
Ames, who is deaf and spoke through an ASL interpreter, said that no one could summarize the complex range of feelings and memories that people in the deaf community hold about the program or the events it concerned.
The Governor Baxter School for the Deaf was founded in Portland in 1876 as the Maine School for the Deaf, and became the Baxter School in 1957 when the facility moved to Mackworth Island. It remains there today, on the small non-residential island connected by causeway to Falmouth.27 Nov 2001, Tue The Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine) Newspapers.com
Before the Baxter Compensation Authority, the deaf community and its allies had tried for years to get the state to own up to abuses that took place at the school, where hundreds of former students had been physically and sexually abused by the school’s headmasters, according to reports and testimony.
“It was the deaf community’s leadership that really pushed this process politically,” said John Shattuck, who was hired in 2001 as the Baxter Compensation Authority’s director. “They were unbelievable, how they got the attention of the Legislature and Governor [Angus King].”
In 1999, some former Baxter students and advocates formed a support group called A Safer Place. Eventually, they convinced lawmakers to introduce a bill that would bring reparations for abused former students, asking for financial compensation, paid counseling and a formal apology from the governor and other state leaders.
When the BCA finally convened, Shattuck’s job was to create a system for former students to deliver testimony to the Legislature. He tracked down school records, interpreters and adjudicators, and spread word of the program.
The program was long overdue, recalls Shattuck, now 72. State officials had been aware of the abuses at the school for decades, and didn’t take appropriate measures. A report by the state attorney general’s office in 1982 found that “despite complaints of physical and sexual abuse from both staff and students, no one bothered to investigate,” according to a 2003 Associated Press article published in the Bangor Daily News.
If anything, lawmakers underestimated the need. By the time the BCA concluded in 2006, its panel heard testimony from 360 former students. It would eventually pay out more than $17 million in compensation packages to 230 of them, far exceeding the original $6 million earmarked to it by legislators. Another 130 people had testified about what they had witnessed at the school, though payments were given to those who were direct victims of physical and sexual abuse. Compensation came in packages of $25,000, $60,000 or $100,000 depending on the severity and duration of the abuse that people endured.
“People wanted to give testimony,” Ames said, recalling that the hearing room was typically full or spilling into the hallways.
The testimonies gave everyone involved a deeper understanding of the abuse that took place than they realized. Therapists were on hand during the testimonies, as some students’ family members were hearing their stories for the first time.
“We thought we were looking at this window of 20 years when people were abused, [but] it went all the way back to the 1930s,” Shattuck said. “We had people that came from the old school that were in their 80s. This woman, who was elderly — she looked at me and said ‘you’re the first person I’ve ever told this to’.”
The compensation bill was initially well received and might have passed on its own, but momentum became mired in lengthy debates about “propriety and cost,” Shattuck recalls. It might have altogether stalled if not for an incident earlier that year: the death of a leader in Maine’s deaf community.
On March 16, 2001, a 60-year-old deaf rights activist named James R. Levier was fatally shot by police in an afternoon standoff in a Scarborough parking lot. Levier drove to the lot in a white van on which he had written messages supporting rights for the deaf – one read “give my life to free deaf people.”19 Mar 2001, Mon The Bangor Daily News (Bangor, Maine) Newspapers.com
After the incident, widely interpreted as a kind of death by suicide, the bill “had full support,” Shattuck said.
“We felt that we had been ignored and put aside for many, many years and at that moment we had their attention,” Ames said. “That was important.”
After the BCA, Disability Rights Maine and other organizations found greater reception for civil rights pushes and communication access campaigns, Ames said. They were more likely to be invited by police departments, nursing homes and other institutions to help train staff about inclusivity and accessibility for deaf and hard of hearing people.
Technological advances helped too. Mobile devices now offer video capabilities and other widgets that provide an accessibility standard for companies and institutions, and make it easier for people to take legal action when someone is noncompliant with accessibility laws.
Clockwise from left: Flowers adorn the grave of James Levier in South Portland; The phrase “I love you” adorns James Levier’s South Portland grave in American Sign Language; A memorial bench honors James Levier outside the Governor Baxter School for the Deaf on Mackworth Island. On March 16, 2001, Police shot and killed the the 60-year-old deaf rights activist during an afternoon standoff in a Scarborough parking lot. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN
For a local example, disability rights advocates fought for years to make film captioning available to deaf and hard-of-hearing viewers in movie theaters. In 2016, the Department of Justice enshrined it as part of the federal Americans With Disabilities Act. In March of 2017, the Maine Human Rights Commission determined that a deaf Portland man had been discriminated against by a Freeport cinema that failed to offer him closed captioning technology.
Civil rights advocacy like that creates a ripple effect, Ames said.
“When somebody experiences having access to a movie experience in one theater, then they are more empowered to then go to other theaters that are local to them or local to their family members and friends and fight for that same right,” she said.
Impacts of disability rights advocacy were also present in Maine’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The state’s Center for Disease Control and Prevention employed a professional interpreting team to deliver public health information, a move that was “tremendously appreciated by the deaf community,” Ames said.
But there’s more work to do. Ames would like to see the state invest money into the buildings on Mackworth Island, which are in need of repair. Disability Rights Maine’s Deaf Services office is located on the island, and she works in a building where she used to sleep as a student.
The island is still “an integral part of our community,” Ames said.