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Lexington parents demand review of isolation complaint

Posted by Leslie Anderson  September 11, 2012 11:59 PM

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Lexington parents called on the School Committee Tuesday night to restore confidence in the district by conducting an independent review of a complaint that a special needs kindergartener was repeatedly placed in a time out room during the 2005-2006 school year.

“It is crucial that an independent review of what went on is conducted,” said Patrick Mehr, a Lexington resident.

A second parent also came forward Tuesday night who said her son was placed in a “quiet room” several times in May 2008, nearly a year after district officials said that the practice had ended.

Committee members agreed to look into whether an outside investigation can be conducted into the case, which has drawn national attention in recent days.

School Committee vice-chairman Alessandro Alessandrini said that a review of the district’s past practices in special education is necessary to satisfy the public, especially in light of the second report.

“For us to go forward we need to make sure the past is cleaned up,” Alessandrini said.
The district’s practices with special education children was placed in the spotlight this past weekend after a parent, Bill Lichtenstein, disclosed the experience of his daughter in an op-ed article in The New York Times.

Lichtenstein said his daughter Rose, who is now 12, was repeatedly placed in a “closet” during the 2005-2006 school year as a way to calm her down. On Jan. 6, 2006, Rose urinated on the floor of the time out room and took off her clothes, and her parents were called to take her home, Lichtenstein said.

His account sparked scrutiny of the Lexington Public Schools from both parents and the media in recent days and forced the School Committee to spend the first hour and a half of its meeting Tuesday night discussing the issue.

Lichtenstein and his former wife filed a complaint with the state’s Board of Special Education Appeals in 2008. They settled with the school district that year. Under the settlement agreement, the district paid $125,000 to the parents, and agreed to pay for Rose’s further education and treatment.

Lexington school Superintendent Paul Ash roundly defended the district’s actions in the case.

“I found no evidence of abuse or any mistreatment,” Ash told the School Committee and a room full of parents. “The staff for this school acted responsibly, within protocol, deeply cared about this student and other students.”

Ash said there was a “significant gap” between Lichtenstein's recollection and the documents and notes of staff members at the time.

Ash said that the school district stopped using separate “time out” rooms in 2007. But prior to that their use was part of the district’s practice and in line with state policy, Ash said.
Children were never left unsupervised in a time out room, he said. And the room in Rose’s school was used by teachers for private phone calls.

The district settled the case because it had come to an agreement on the need for out-of-district placement and to avoid a costly and time-consuming legal battle, Ash said.

“I was disturbed to see the school system portrayed in a light that was not accurate,” Ash said, referring to Lichtenstein’s op-ed article.

However, parent Barbara Visovatti said she shared an experience similar to what Lichtenstein described. Visovatti said her elementary school son was placed in a room outside of his classroom at Fiske Elementary School on multiple occasions in 2008, soon after he enrolled in the district.

“It does happen,” Visovatti said. “It does happen in Lexington. And it did happen in 2008.”
Lexington School Committee members were surprised by Visovatti’s account and instructed Ash to look into it further.

Some Lexington parents and teachers, however, commended the district for its special education services and said their children benefited.

Carol Millard said her daughter went to Fiske Elementary School, the same building as Rose, and found the staff supportive.

“The situation described in the New York Times is not our experience,” Millard said.

School Committee members said the first time they heard of the case involving Lichtenstein's daughter was when they read the op-ed article this past weekend. School Committee members are not involved in discussions about placements of special education children or in settlements reached with parents on their cases, said Margaret Coppe, the School Committee’s chairwoman.

The settlement was determined by the district’s student services director, in consultation with the superintendent, Lexington’s legal consultant and the district’s insurance company, Coppe said.

Unless a parent writes to the School Committee, the district’s professional staff handles such matters, Coppe said.

Placing children in a time out room was allowed by Lexington’s policy until 2007, Coppe said.

“What was OK then, is not OK now,” she said. “We can’t change what happened. And we don’t want it to happen again.”

Lichtenstein, who did not attend Tuesday’s meeting, said his daughter’s experience does deserve further review by the district.

“Given you have all these inconsistencies and issues, you have to have a full investigation,” Lichtenstein said in an interview Tuesday night. “Every piece of it cries out for a full public investigation.”

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@globe.com.

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