Residents, School Committee Members Call for Independent Review of Isolation Room Complaints
As the Lexington Public Schools deal with shocking allegations of mistreatment of a special needs student six years ago, parents and School Committee members want an investigation into the incident and records from the time.
“Welcome to the 21st Century Classroom,” read yellow letters across a blue screen behind the stage at Cary Hall as the room slowly filled with residents and media. The cheery message was a stark contrast to the reason the masses assembled here on a chilly September night.
Most of them weren't there for the presentation on an iPad pilot program at Lexington High, or to hear the latest about the three elementary school building projects. The electricity in the air had sparked a few days earlier, with the publication over the weekend in the New York Times of an opinion piece in which a former Lexington resident makes shocking allegations of the mistreatment of his daughter when she was a student in the Lexington Public Schools.
According to Bill Lichtenstein, his daughter, a special needs student enrolled in kindergarten at Fiske School during the 2006-2007 school year, was repeatedly locked inside a small room with mats on the walls and a single light bulb. On one occasion, Lichtenstein alleges, he was called to pick up his daughter and found her standing naked inside the room after soiling herself.
Addressing the public on Tuesday, Superintendent of Schools Paul Ash, as he had done in a statement released the previous day, said his review of the incident revealed a “significant gap” between the OpEd’s allegations and what is reflected in the notes and logs kept by staff at the time.
“I believed then, and I believe now, the staff at the Fiske School acted appropriately within protocol and cared deeply about this student and others,” Ash said.
But not everyone was ready to take either man at his word.
Lexington residents and School Committee members on Tuesday called for an independent review to bridge the gap between Lichtenstein’s shocking allegations and the Superintendent’s assertion that school staff acted in accordance with district protocol.
How, when and whether such an investigation will come to light, is unclear at this point, but School Committee Chair Margaret Coppe said she would report back to the board about proceeding with a review.
Another concern among School Committee members and residents centered on the practices described by Lichtenstein and administrators, in which students with special need were relocated from classrooms to “timeout rooms” as a de-escalation technique.
“For myself and the community, we need to understand that this is not something that happens now,” said Bonnie Brodner, a member of the School Committee.
While Lichtenstein’s OpEd discusses “seclusion rooms” as a “terrifying punishment” for children, school administrators say the district formerly implemented “time out rooms.” The distinction between a timeout room and a seclusion room is that staff remains accessible to the student in a timeout room, but the district doesn’t even do that anymore, administrators said.
While administrators say isolation rooms outside of the classroom were taken out of practice in 2007, one mother rebuffed that claim on Tuesday.
With her voice cracking at almost every word, Lexington resident Barbara Visovatti read from notes from a teacher about her son’s experiences in a quiet room outside the Fiske ILP kindergarten -– in 2008. One note included an indication her son might have been left alone in the room, and Visovatti said he later began shutting himself in a hall closet and tucking himself in what she described as a “fetal position.”
Given the severity of the allegations and probability an independent review could take some time, Jennifer Yaar, a parent and co-chair of Lexington’s Special Education Parents Advisory Council, asked if there was any immediate information or assurances to share with parents “to get them to at least send their kids to school.”
To that, Ash said he and Linda Chase, the district’s director of student services, would be happy to meet with SEPAC at the council’s earliest convenience.