BY MARTHA SMITH
Special to the Standard
EXETER – Ladd School, once a scene of indescribable heartache and tragedy, was reborn yesterday as the Rhode Island State Fire Academy.
Dignitaries, including Gov. Lincoln D. Chafee, state Fire Marshal John E. Chartier, State Police Superintendent Col. Steven G. O’Donnell, Richard Licht, state director of administration, State Senate President M. Teresa Paiva-Weed – and representatives of fire and police departments across the state – attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
It was so crowded that people lined the walls and spilled out into the parking lot out back.
The colors were posted by members of the North Kingstown Fire Department before a prayer, the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem.
At the end of the anthem, Muzzy, a brindle Akita in training to be a therapy dog, produced a single loud bark of approval.
Chafee said the new facility will make “Rhode Island the leader for first responders going into dangerous situations.”
Col. O’Donnell said, “We’ve waited a long time for this day. You will receive training which will enhance all your skills. The opportunity to study here will only increase public confidence.”
State Fire Marshal John E. Chartier called the opening of the academy, “a new start for the fire service in Rhode Island. Finding facilities was always difficult.”
He noted that the first training school was headquartered above a steak house, the next was in a tricked-out garage and another was at Quonset.
According to official press information, the academy is “the first step in providing a training facility that meets a national standard and will be used to train all firefighters in the state.”
Using borrowed facilities over the past two years, the fire academy has held 138 classes attended by nearly 4,500.
It was designed by Robinson Green Beretta of Providence and includes a “burn building” for live training as well as a tower and other structures and devices.
The new academy is located on property near the Rhode Island Veterans Memorial Cemetery on Route 2, on a developed area that includes the Job Corps and the Phoenix House rehab center.
Founded in 1907, the Exeter School was intended to serve mentally or physically challenged youth to prepare for future employment as housekeepers, farm workers and factory assemblers.
In rapid fashion, the school became overcrowded with staff unable to keepfulfill their responsibilities. Under successive superintendents, Ladd became a dumping ground for children and older patients. Rumors of abuse and neglect – especially in the notorious “back wards” — were rampant.
The school population surged to more than 1,000 in the mid-’70s. Arlene Violet, who would later become the state’s first woman attorney general, represented a parents’ group that succeeded in getting the patient numbers cut by two-thirds. The remainder went to other schools or to live in group homes.
When reports of patient abuse continued, the school was closed in 1994.
During the construction of the fire academy, one worker reported a feeling uneasy in some of the buildings.