I-Team: Grafton School Psychologist Hid Troubling History

By Kathy Curran, WBZ-TV

GRAFTON (CBS) – Michael Sefton is a high school psychologist in a position of trust, but the I-Team found he has a secret from his past, which he hid from the school that hired him.

And as the school year winds down at Grafton High School, an investigation into Sefton is ramping up. Sefton has been the school’s psychologist for the past two years, but the I-Team has discovered he may have gotten his job under false pretenses.

WBZ-TV’s Kathy Curran reports

It’s a case of broken trust and abuse of power. The I-Team found that in 1998 and 1999, Sefton had sexual relations with one of his patients — a 24-year-old woman. According to a civil suit filed in 2002, that female patient idealized Sefton at a time when she was vulnerable and in a weakened mental condition.

As a result, the state Board of Registration of Psychologists stripped Sefton of his license to practice psychology back in 2008.

“This is probably one of the most, if not the most serious violations,” said Barbara Anthony, undersecretary of the state Office of Consumer Affairs and Business Regulation, which oversees the board of psychologists.

“It’s taking advantage and exploiting a person who’s in a very vulnerable circumstance,” Anthony said. “He should not be practicing psychology in the state of Massachusetts.”

But that didn’t stop Sefton from getting hired two years ago as the school psychologist at Grafton High School. All he needed to qualify for the job was a certificate from the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which he was able to get without disclosing to anyone that he had lost his license to practice psychology.

Sefton did not return the I-Team’s phone calls and he could not be found at Grafton High School during numerous visits by the I-Team over the last few weeks. We finally tracked him down at his home in Shrewsbury.

We asked him about the revocation of his psychologist’s license for having sex with a patient and his failure to disclose that fact to the Grafton School Department.

“I can’t comment on that right now, it wouldn’t be proper,” Sefton responded.
Grafton School Superintendent Joseph Connors told the I-Team he did not know about Sefton’s past until after the I-Team started asking questions several weeks ago.

“The only comment that I would make is that the situation, we’re aware of it, we’ve been recently made aware of it, and it’s under review,” Connors said, refusing to discuss whether Sefton is still reporting for work at the high school.

In a written statement, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education said it did not find out Sefton’s professional license had been revoked by the board of psychologists until the fall of 2010 — one year after it gave him a certificate to work as a school psychologist.

DESE said it’s investigating and would make no further comment on Sefton’s status.

The Grafton superintendent said Sefton has been a good employee since he’s been working at the high school.
Sefton also teaches psychology courses at UMass Boston and Assumption College and works part-time as a police officer in New Braintree.

If you have a tip for the I-Team, email Joe and Kathy.

  • Willow

    So what should happen here, fire him and make sure he can no longer work so we can support him on Welfare instead? He made a mistake in the past. It doesn’t mean he will repeat it. Everyone deserves a second chance. Don’t we give it to drunk drivers and other offenders?

    • Caryn

      So as parents in the town we should suffer because he did something wrong and then lied about it to get another job under false pretenses. this man has no business being a ‘medical’ professional!

  • Willow

    By the way, the whole world is in a vulnerable state of mind, why do you think we have so many drug addicts? I didn’t see the word rape used, so it must have been consentual. There is always an excuse for spur of the moment behavior. Why don’t people just take responsibility for their acts instead of finding something to blame for them?

  • Dr. Ron Allanach

    Being an alumni of the world renowned SI Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, a former school administrator,
    and presently a psychotherapist with the School Board in Metro Vancouver, I
    aghast and disappointed at the “bushwack” tabloid journalism displayed by WBZ which is usually a professional group I know the I-Team must meet story demands from editors to justify its budget especially in these times, but this is beyond news reporting. I have known Dr. Sefton for over 35 years – he made a mistake several years back and paid for it. I can assure you he is a bright and smart man who has helped many people, His very wonderful family almost disolved as a result, they were just healing until WBZ opened the wound. You do NOT know the background of this single OLD case. Willow is right, Your take on what happened far from the truth, Also his license was SUSPENDED, NOT REVOKED… He was under no legal obligation to inform the School Supt
    about this Boston is a big town, the story pool cannot be that dry! Shame to you. Everyone has secrets, even members of the I Team..

    • Don

      Go to the Massachusetts Board of Psychology and check it out for yourself. His license WAS REVOKED, not suspended. Honestly being in the field myself I am shocked at your comments. Being a psychotherapist yourself you, of all people, should know that this is recognized as unethical due to the power imbalance inherent in the structure of the therapist-patient relationship. This should be considered the most serious ethical violation. In the therapeutic context, the therapy process tends to encourage transference-based relationships derived from early childhood, so the patient is particularly vulnerable to exploitation. This is psychology 101. We are trained to recognize this. The consequences of having a sexual relationship with one’s therapist are very serious since sexual misconduct betrays the trust and sanctity of the therapeutic relationship. Once a patient has been exploited in this way, he or she is much less likely to seek help in a therapeutic context despite that he or she may suffer from depression, low self-esteem, and other effects of sexual trauma. Consensual or not, the damage goes much, much deeper.

  • jaygee

    When he was asked about the revocation of his license, why didn’t he mention the fact that it hadn’t been revoked? I would like to hear two things, the first of which would be an explanation by Mr. Sefton. Next, I would like to hear a short debate between Dr. Allanach & Barbara Anthony regarding ethics& responsibility.

  • Dr. Ron Allanach

    Thanks Don for your thoughtful comments and yes, license was revoked and I stand corrected..mis understood. My beef is not that he should not be punished, he was. I am only wondering what purpose is served by dragging this out in a tabloid segment of WBZ news, damaging a person who has paid for his bad decision that happened only once.
    I certainly agree with everything you say and that truly this is a serious offense. The offense should not be tolerated.
    What I want to make clear is that Dr Sefton was punished for an incident occurring in 1999. He received his 40 lashes. So, here’s the question: How much and for how long should he be punished. I have been up close on this since 1999, Of course, the facts were not brought forth on this matter by WBZ. Journalists often are superficial, producing incomplete stories, going for the contrived drama (i.e., B&W, photos of a guy taking out trash…) and this in a sense is “making news”, not reporting it. I have no argument with the Board revoking his license, he deserved this and I told him. I will not get into the details of who was chasing who, and if indeed this woman was a patient (can be debated as to what defines a patient.)
    I can say that often folks can become victims quickly if they see a deep pocket and bring their suitcase to the office so it can be filled with $$$ and I will say no more on it. In short, Dr Sefton was punished , losing his license, losing $100,000s in income, only after he was honest and reported the incident to the Board of Psych. on HIS OWN. The Board then revoked it. He had no obligation to report this to his school chief. Let the first person who has withheld information from a prospective boss, or a current boss, step forward. Oh, no one, I see. Of course.
    Thanks Don for your time in responding.

    • Don

      You loyalty to this person given the subject of it all is astonishing to me. There are some obvious hurdles with this story that there is no getting around and I am perplexed with some of your assumptions being in this field of practice. I am doing some digging on this myself so I do not speak out of context but I will state this. If she was not a patient then the Board of Psychology would have no jurisdiction over the matter which would, as you stated, would make the story nothing but “contrived drama”. But the fact of the matter is that the Board of Psych did revoke the license which leads to the only conclusion that she was indeed seeking some type of psychological services. Otherwise the Board wouldn’t have any legal ground to get involved. That’s pretty clear cut. The how’s and why’s and who did what doesn’t matter at that point. He took an oath. That’s one of the first things you learn.

  • Dear Dr. Ron

    Did you all forget that the reason he is in the news is because he made a SERIES of unethical decisions. As far as I’m concerned the point of this story is that he is current practicing psychology without a license. Lets put aside the shadiness he conducted to get his school psych license and focus on the fact that he has been completing nureopsyhcological evalutatiions with Assumption College business cards stapled to the reports. SHAME SHAME

  • Don

    Reading the posts in the room it is obvious to see who the “supporters” of this person are. Dear Dr Ron brings up a very valid point which is the point of the story in the first place! Lets boil away all the loyalties, names and who did what’s. If a psychologist loses their license for sexual misconduct in the state of Massachusetts they no longer have the right, privilege or honor to “Hang a Plaque” stating that they are a licensed psychologist who can administer psychological services. Now I am left without a psychologist…but wait, instead this person can go to Department of Education and get a different piece of paper so they can administer the same psychological services, through the school system, to my TEENAGE CHILDREN. I don’t care who you are, how you have cleaned up your act or even found religion for that matter. I would be outraged, horrified for that matter. So the state removes the psychologist’s license so is not to do any further damage and then gives them a different license through a different state agency, Department of Education, as School Psychologist to work with teenage children. To me that’s going from bad to worse. Am I the only one who understood the story???

  • Dear Dr Ron

    Amen! He should be ASHAMED of himself. I don’t care that he was a great employee or dedicated member of his community. He worked the system and continued to practice. Honestly I could care less what he did to get his license revoked 12 years ago. The fact that he felt he was entitled to keep practicing is awful. He lied o families that paid him a lot of money out of their pockets. So Dr Ron I ask you, who is lying now that they see an open wallet?????

  • Julie

    I wish the story focused on the real problem, which is that the public is totally unaware of the difference between licensed psychologists and licensed school psychologists (the latter only have a Masters degree, not a Ph.D., and have many fewer years of training than licensed psychologists). It is unfortunate that this man did not chose another profession, given his ethically troubling behavior, but the requirements for certification as a school psychologist are not difficult to achieve, and I saw nothing in this story that led me to believe that he misrepresented the truth on any applications. He didn’t really work the system, he simply entered a new profession (that he was overqualified for). School psychologists should have a more appropriate title, like “school psychology technician”, that does not mislead the public.

    • Dear Dr. Ron

      I agree with you that the point of the story was missed. I’m not sure why you are diminishing the work of school psychologist though. However, you bring up an interesting hot topic between APA and NASP regarding the title. I disagree that he entered a “new profession”. I believe counseling, conduct evaluations, and consulting with school team members is what he was doing before. How do you explain the outside evaluations he was completing? These had no ties to the public school he worked for and require a license from the Board of Psychologists in MA.

      Granted he held a license by the DESE which got him the job, but why did that happen given his history?

    • Dear Dr. Ron

      Oh, I thought you might like this article published by The National Psychologist. I particularly like the comment made by Susan Gorin

      “Gorin said school psychology is a specialty that requires different but substantial training comparable in many ways to that of practicing psychologists. “The difference between a school psychologist and someone who is a psychologist at the Ph.D. or Psy.D. level is a dissertation and a couple of research courses. Not much.”


  • MJ

    What’s the difference from practicing psychology on the public versus high school students?? Overqualified or not, he is providing the same service just to a younger population. Either way, as a parent, it is still unsettling to me. Being a parent in this school district the first thing I did was question my daughter about him. Thankfully she has never had the need to seek any type of guidance. The school system needs to do better background checks when it comes to trusted professionals working with ANY children. That should be priority #1. I worry about my daughter when she goes out and about but to have to worry about who she is exposed to at school?? This never should have happened! Policies need to change!

  • EB

    Is this a story? Come on CBS, grow up. It seems a little bit of misleading literature was the basis of this article, if you are going to start a report with the words broken trust and abuse of power, then you are going to have to find sources directly connected to the story to cite. He’s paid his dues, no need to throw in the words “High School” to raise eyebrows. Find a real story to grab attention

  • MJ

    Boy EB, you miss understood the story completely. It went to court, state intervened after the fact, did not tell the school, and it was 12 years ago?!? He is obviously good at hiding things. What else don’t we know?? I am glad we found out.

  • School Psychology technician??!!

    School Psychology technician??!! Haha!!! That’s funny.

  • EB

    MJ, just another overreacting parent who thinks they can judge everyone from a measly 500 words. Theres a big difference between 24 and 14-18. I understood the story well, and have the benefit of unbiased opinion. Theres just no substance here in the details or sources. It’s a poorly formed report. I’m sure the media would never exaggerate a story to draw attention. And if you are still learning what sarcasm is then you might consider finding that out too. The article says that the school did not know his license had been revoked, but it does not say that he claimed to have the license during the interviewing process. It makes no suggestion that he hung a fake plaque, or listed licensure he did not have, it simply says he did not disclose it to the school. If the school did not discover the information in a background check, then its not him to blame, because who in their right mind would disclose that information when they are trying to get a job. Also, is it really fair of us to ask for someone to quit what they’ve been working for over a single mistake? If that is the case then none of you can claim to believe in any form of ex-convict work-programs, or rehabilitation. There needs to be a certain levels of forgiveness and progression. He lost his ability to practice psychology, not counseling. And he has exercised his right to continue in a related field of his chosen profession, which it appears he’s good at, and this based on the comments from the school itself.

  • Don

    Because psychologists discuss emotional and psychological issues with their patients, they can become very vulnerable, it is likely that they may get swayed emotionally. In such a case it is the psychologist’s prerogative to draw a line, maintain respect for this relationship, and provide the necessary therapy or treatment. Apparently he did not. Without that being proven, the Board of Psychology would have no grounds to remove his license. The board did remove his license and now he is working with a younger population with the title “School Psychologist”. Put whatever word you want in front of the word psychologist and it does not change the science behind the practice. People do have the tendency to relapse. Even psychologist… Some do some don’t. Do you want expose someone you care for with that chance? Apparently MJ does not she has every right to be on guard about this situation.

  • nancie p.

    This man was working at the Grafton Middle School. My son has been unable to attend school in Grafton because of warped recommendations this man wrote. I have paid 1000’s in legal fees for this school system to only stand firm on the recommendations of an unlicensed, unethical “doctor”? What right did he have to even be doing this kind of work with children?

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