Seclusion Rooms Only Part of the Story
A third Lexington family has shared its special education story and asked for an independent investigation into the treatment of their 17-year-old son when he was a young student with special needs.
This past weekend, 17-year-old Robert Ernst had plans to visit Cornell University, where he might like to study entomology next year after graduating from Lexington High School. But, listening to the way his story begins, it sounds as though this high school senior’s road through LPS to the Ivy League has been rockier than most.
Ernst is a member of the third local family to come forward with allegations of mistreatment of young special needs students in the Lexington Public Schools. More to the point, he is the one alleging the abuse.
According to him and his mother, Wendy Ernst, Robert was put on an individualized education program (IEP) since pre-school, but wasn’t diagnosed with Asperger’s until fifth grade. During the intervening years is when, according to the family, Robert was shut in a seclusion room and physically restrained on several occasions by teachers and aids at the Fiske and Estabrook elementary schools.
The Ernst family decided to share Robert’s story last week, after allegations of the mistreatment of special needs students and use of seclusion rooms in the Lexington Public Schools were thrust into the spotlight by a former Lexington resident’s op-ed in the New York Times. Going public is something family members said they wouldn’t have done otherwise, but which they hope will bring awareness to the community and closure to the family.
“I hope this starts with people becoming aware that these things can happen, and stop wearing those rose-colored glasses,” said Robert, “Because these things have happened in our town.”
Allegations of abuse within the special education system in the Lexington Public Schools came to the fore last week when former resident Bill Lichtenstein shared the story of his daughter’s “seclusion room” experiences while a kindergartner at Fiske during the 2005-2006 school year.
A second story emerged during a School Committee meeting last Tuesday, and the following day district administrators asked the state Department of Children and Families to conduct an investigation into those cases. The Ernst family has asked for Robert’s case to be included, but as of Wednesday evening had not definitively heard back about its inclusion.
“Our family has lived for 10 years in limbo, because there’s no conclusion to what happened to us,” Wendy Ernst said last Friday.
Seclusion Rooms Only Part of the Story
While the use of seclusion rooms or “time out” rooms has been driving the narrative to date, the Ernsts say that’s only part of the story.
Robert, who has been on an IEP since pre-school, was first put in a seclusion room as a first-grader at Fiske. He describes the room as a “square concrete box with blue padding all over it,” but his mother never asked to see the room even after learning her son had been sent there at least a few times over the spring. While Robert doesn’t recall the specifics of why he was put in the room, he does remember he was sent there until he calmed down and was checked on every five minutes or so.
The next year, Robert was moved into the CARE program at Estabrook Elementary, where second grade went well enough before a difficult start to his third-grade year.
According to documents kept by Wendy Ernst, Robert was physically restrained on at least 19 occasions from Sept. 9 through Oct. 15 during the 2003-2004 school year. Robert, Wendy and the reports describe the type of restraints, which included holding the boys arms, holding him in a chair and, sometimes, using a prone restraint in which he was facedown on the floor.
“They were treating Robert like a behavior problem, when at heart it was the Asperger’s,” said Wendy. “I think part of the problem was definitely that there wasn’t a lot of understanding of [Asperger’s] at the time, but no kid deserves to be held down and restrained 19 times.”
When the restraints weren’t working and his parents began sending letters to the school, Estabrook started sending Robert home. Eventually, he was moved over to the more established CARE program Bridge School, which the family says welcomed Robert with open arms, but it was “too little, too late.”
Robert was then move out-of-district, did better and eventually received a diagnosis. He returned to the Lexington Public Schools as a high school sophomore and said he’s had better experiences since then.
While highly critical of the handling of Robert, the Ernst family isn’t ready to indict the Lexington Public Schools as a whole. In fact, they’re quick to point out that their 13-year-old son, Paul, is on ILP at Clarke Middle School and has had excellent experiences in the same programs his holder brother had problems with.
By sharing their story now, the Ernst family hopes to hear some assurances that there is more oversight and adequate training for special education teachers and aids, and that other students aren’t sharing the experience of their elder son.
Speaking publicly after the allegations first emerged, LPS administrators have said the special education oversight and protocols have changed since Robert Ernst was an elementary-schooler, but stories have emerged that call some of those assertions into question.
The Ernst family has not yet received definitive word that the district will elevate their case to the state DCF. While they know the current administration is not responsible for what happened to their son, the Ernsts think their family, and all of Lexington, deserves the assurance that the district’s top educators are making sure these things aren’t happening anymore, to anyone.
“For our family to have some kind of closure, I really think we need some kind of explanation,” Wendy Ernst said last week. “But I’m afraid that once again we’ll be left with no answers.”
A School Committee meeting is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. tonight at Clarke Middle School. The only item on the agenda is a “Special Education Discussion.”