Federal Wrongful Death Lawsuit Alleges The Grove School Falsified Logs and Was Grossly Understaffed

Washington, DC (November 14, 2022) – Maryland residents Joseph and Gabrielle Fontana have filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Madison, Connecticut-based therapeutic boarding school, The Grove School, its principals (Richard Chorney and Peter Chorney), and two of the school’s health care providers (psychiatrist Amy Stevens and social worker Sarah Hallwood), for the May 20, 2021, death of their youngest, fifteen-year-old daughter MF while in the custody, care, and control of the school.

MF started at Grove School in late April 2021, at a time when, unbeknownst to the Fontanas, the school was grossly understaffed and unable to fulfill its duties to its students. According to Grove School employees, this gross understaffing began months earlier. Despite this, the school had repeatedly assured the Fontanas that it had the full capability to care for and to protect MF. “I don’t understand how Richard and Peter Chorney could have accepted our daughter for admission without alerting us of their chronic night-time staffing shortage,” Mr. Fontana said.

On May 19, 2021, Grove School staff reached out to the Fontanas and expressed concern about MF’s safety. They assured the Fontanas that MF would be placed on “Escorted Supervision,” and that she would be constantly accompanied by a staff member. Relying upon and trusting the school’s promises, the Fontanas refrained from traveling to Connecticut that day. A group call was scheduled for the following morning.

Due to the gross shortage of staffing at Grove School, it was impossible for the night staffing to perform all required duties in connection with monitoring and ensuring the safety of its students. Due to understaffing, on the evening of MF’s death, the night staff member assigned to watch MF was also responsible for performing bed checks for three other girls’ dorms. Additionally, the night staff member responsible for watching the numerous security cameras had to leave them unattended while conducting the bed checks for six boys’ dorms. Grove School security camera footage shows MF leaving her dorm at around 4:10 a.m. on May 20, 2021. Mr. Fontana states that he will “never forgive them for leaving MF alone on her final night alive, only 10 hours after promising us that she had been placed under Escorted Supervision and would be accompanied by a staff member at all times.”

MF was struck and killed by an Amtrak train around 5:00 a.m. on May 20, 2021. Despite MF having left the school at around 4:10 a.m., a staff member falsified multiple log entries, claiming to have personally observed MF sleeping in her dorm room at 4:45 a.m. (35 minutes after MF left) and 5:30 a.m., after MF had been killed.

The Connecticut Department of Children and Families investigated this tragedy and concluded that the Grove School staff member had engaged in “Physical Neglect” of MF. The Department also wrote a letter to Richard Chorney stating that the level of staffing implemented at Grove School was “inadequate” and requiring that Grove School implement a “staffing plan which will require a minimum of one awake staff member in all residential dorms” during the overnight shift before it admit any new students. Similarly, an Amtrak Police Detective concluded that the Grove School nighttime staff were “negligent in the supervision and accountability of [MF] on 2 bed checks both at 4:45 am and 5:30 am.” He further noted that the school “was not aware that [MF] was missing until after the police responded to the scene and the investigation had begun.” According to the Amtrak Police Department, had the school reported a student missing, all trains would have been stopped until that student was located.

MF’s death has had a huge impact on so many, including her family, friends, and their close-knit community. Both Mr. and Mrs. Fontana are grateful for the police work done by the Amtrak Police Department in uncovering the environment MF was in prior to her death while attending The Grove School. While this lawsuit can never bring their daughter back, the Fontanas hope that it will help reduce the likelihood of other parents experiencing a similar tragedy and daily feelings of loss, by increasing their awareness of the devastating consequences caused by these inexcusable and systemic failures.

The lawsuit, Gabrielle Alfano Fontana, et al., v. Grove School, Inc., et al. Case No. 3:22-cv-01180, is pending in the United States District Court for the District of Connecticut.

A copy of the Complaint can be found here.