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Parents, students at a loss as school in Ashby is closed

Academy worked with autism cases

When a therapist told Mark McGaunn about Ashby Academy, he thought he had found the perfect solution for his 14-year-old developmentally disabled son. He borrowed $5,000 for a deposit to hold his son's spot at Ashby, where the annual tuition is $66,000.

But late last week his hopes were dashed when the school abruptly closed, leaving families from around the country stunned and wondering where their children will attend school this year - or whether they will see their tuition money again. Several parents said they have been told their money might not be refunded.

Situated on a wooded campus just a short drive from the McGaunns' home in Sterling, the boarding school specialized in children with Asperger's syndrome, a type of autism that keeps sufferers - usually boys - from communicating well with other children.

McGaunn's son, who had tried public school and home schooling with little success, was to receive 16 hours a day of education and counseling, the school's director assured him. He would learn to make friends.

"This was our last thing," McGaunn said. "All our prayers were answered."

But now police say the FBI is looking into the circumstances of the closure, which happened the day before classes were to begin. It has been about a year since owner Michael Beavers opened the year-round school, telling reporters he wanted to help middle-school-aged boys whose disabilities make them a target of bullying in traditional schools.

A school biography describes him as businessman and lawyer.

Gail Marcinkiewicz, a spokeswoman for the FBI's Boston office, said that she had no details about the case and that the agency does not comment on ongoing investigations.

Reached by phone yesterday, Beavers said he was surprised at the attention the shuttering of the school had attracted. "This is not really world news," he said. "The school's a very private institution, and we didn't make a lot of noise about anything we did."

Beavers said the school had closed for financial reasons and had no further comment.

But parents expressed outrage that they learned about the school's financial problems too late for them to make other arrangements for their children, who have a range of learning disabilities. The nine families whose children were enrolled for this year come from as far as California and Chicago, and some had already prepaid the year's tuition. In some cases, children's belongings and academic and medical records are still at the school, complicating parents' efforts to place them elsewhere.

"The worst part about it is you have a child with problems and there is no way to place them," said Ira Schwidel of Tarrytown, N.Y., whose son Sean has attention deficit disorder and was the first student to attend the school last year. Schwidel and his wife, Renee, praised the quality of the school's staff and said they wish Sean could have continued there.

Sean became calmer and more social after attending Ashby, Renee Schwidel said. "Now it's like starting all over," she said.

Like some other parents, the Schwidels first learned about the closure in an answering-machine message from Beavers's wife on Friday, just before the students were due to return from a two-week break. Some parents said they were never contacted directly and found out when Ira Schwidel called them to discuss filing a lawsuit against Beavers.

Jennifer Heymann of San Mateo, Calif., said she looked at 13 other schools before settling on Ashby for her son, who has several learning disabilities. Even with the scholarship the school offered, she had to empty her retirement account and take out loans when she prepaid for a year in February. She said she has no idea where her son will go now, or how she would pay his tuition.

The school had struggled to attract students since opening last year, and in recent months had fired several staff members and stopped paying others, staff and parents said.

It was one of a small number of schools in the country to specialize in Asperger's syndrome, a burgeoning problem in Massachusetts and nationwide.

Children with Asperger's often experience a puzzling range of symptoms that affect both their ability to get good grades and their relationships with family members and other children.

"My son can't eat certain foods because he gets violently sick, he can't smell smells, he can't have bare feet going to bed because the feeling of the sheets makes his skin crawl," McGaunn said. "On top of that you have the learning disabilities and not being able to read body language. Life is hard."

Felicia Mello can be reached at fmello@globe.com.

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