It wasn’t the settlement or his daughter's recovery that motivated journalist and former Lexington resident Bill Lichtenstein to write an OpEd for the New York Times about the alleged mistreatment of his daughter, then a kindergartener, within the Lexington Public Schools six years ago.
It was Jerry Sandusky.
Or, rather, it was the seismic fallout from the child abuse scandal that rocked Penn State, tarnished the reputation of legendary football coach Joe Paterno and forced the responsibility of adults to protect children into the public consciousness.
In , Lichtenstein writes about “seclusion rooms” as a cruel punishment for special needs students, and the shock of finding his young daughter naked in a basement closet, standing naked in a puddle of her own urine.
Although there was no indication of any sexual misconduct involving his daughter, Lichtenstein said following the Sandusky/Penn State scandal got him thinking about the responsibility of adults to not turn a blind eye when children’s safety is at stake. That, combined with Senate hearings over the summer, compelled Lichtenstein to share his version of his family's story.
“The thing that has always haunted me, in addition to the details of what happened to [her], is we were told at the time that other kids were involved,” said Lichtenstein. “The idea, the not knowing if it had ever been investigated and if the parents had been told, made me think about writing an article.”
According to Lichtenstein, during the 2006-2007 school year his then-5-year-old daughter was locked in a basement closet of the current school administration building, which at that time was being used as the during construction. The closet, Lichtenstein says, was being used as a “seclusion room,” a controversial form of treatment and punishment used for special needs students that has come under fire from the Government Accountability Office and federal lawmakers.
By his own account, Lichtenstein said he never asked to see the room, which educators reportedly described as a “time out” room to which his daughter, who was on an IEP, was sent to some days. “There was a simple presumption, any parent being told that, that it would be an appropriate setting for a 5-year-old child,” Lichtenstein said.
To view the “seclusion room” Lichtenstein says his daughter was locked inside or to read through the parents' presentment letter and proposed findings and judgments, click through the photos and PDFs posted above.
In a statement released Monday night, Lexington Superintendent of Schools Paul Ash said , but indicate that staff members followed protocol.
In the statement, Ash also notes that the allegations were not brought until two years after the incidents allegedly occurred. According to a report last night on Fox, the Lichtenstein family settled with the district for $125,000 for therapy bills; according to the presentment letter provided by Lichtenstein, the family initially sought $5 million in damages. The settlement reportedly occurred in 2009.
Speaking with Patch on Monday, Lichtenstein said that in retrospect, had he known all of the facts, he would have done more at the time. But, as it was, the family’s first concern was the well being of their daughter, and believed that her situation was an isolated incident.
The girl was pulled out of the Lexington Public Schools, spent months recovering at home and then entered a program. The family no longer lives in town, and their daughter attends a public educational collaborative outside of Lexington, according to Lichtenstein.
With the settlement in the rear view mirror, Lichtenstein said payoff from his piece—which he says he pitched to the Times and secured interest by telling the national story of seclusion rooms—would be if it leads to other incidences of mistreatment of children to come to light.
“My hope is that [she] continues to get past this,” he said, “And the second hope is that if any other children were involved, they can identify those kids and let the parents know.”
The Times piece isn't Lichtenstein's only work on mental health issues and punishment.
Lichtenstein, a Peabody Award-winning print and broadcast journalist, was diagnosed with manic depression in 1986, according to an interview with New England and Film.com, and in 1990 formed Lichtenstein Creative Media, a company that has produced a number of works tackling mental health issues.
In late August, Lichtenstein wrote a piece for HuffPost about the Massachusetts child welfare system being labeled the fifth worst-managed in the country.