A father’s account, published over the weekend, of how his daughter was repeatedly locked in a “closet” as a Lexington kindergartner in 2006 prompted a rebuttal Monday from the town’s school superintendent, leaving conflicting accounts of exactly what happened to her six years ago.
Bill Lichtenstein, 55, of Newton, said Monday that his daughter Rose, who is now 12, continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the treatment she received while enrolled at the Fiske Elementary School. His account first appeared Sunday in an op-ed article in The New York Times.
“The biggest challenge for Rose, and for me as her father, is that it’s hard to tell Rose that the world is not a place where big people can put their hands on little people and hurt them and drag them off,” Lichtenstein said Monday in a phone interview. “Because that’s not her experience.”
But on Monday night, Superintendent Paul B. Ash defended the Fiske employees who were working with Rose, a child with speech and cognitive disabilities. He said none of the staff members did anything that warranted a sanction.
“At no time did I see anything here that suggested to me that their behavior working with this child was improper,” Ash said.
Lichtenstein and his former wife reached a $125,000 settlement with the school district in 2008, and the district also agreed to pay for education and treatment costs for their daughter.
According to a complaint that Rose’s parents filed with the state Board of Special Education Appeals in 2008, she was placed by herself in a small “time out” room when she acted out in class, sometimes for up to an hour.
“Using a tiny, bare, windowless room, with padded walls and no way for Rose to escape was, at a minimum, shocking and barbaric punishment,” the complaint stated.
On Jan. 6, 2006, she urinated on the floor of the time out room and took off her clothes, and her parents were called to take her home, according to the filing.
On Monday night, Ash said the room in question was a place that teachers used to make phone calls.
He also said that, at the time, the school district used such time out rooms as permitted under state guidelines, but a staff member was always in the room with the child or right outside the room, looking in through either a window or an open door.
He said there is no evidence that any child in a time out room went more than five minutes without direct contact with a staff member.
JC Considine, a spokesman for the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, which oversees all of the public school districts in the state, said Monday in an e-mail that “no complaint was filed with our Program Quality Assurance unit on this matter.”
He said that the use of seclusion restraint is prohibited in state public education programs.
The state defines such restraint as “Physically confining a student alone in a room or limited space without access to school staff. The use of ‘time out’ procedures during which a staff member remains accessible to the student shall not be considered ‘seclusion restraint.’ ”
Ash said the school district stopped placing students in separate time out rooms in 2007, but that decision was not a direct response to Rose’s experience.
“Education evolves, and the staff felt that there were better protocols” available, Ash said. “We’re looking for the best ways that we can work with children.”
He said that in lieu of timeout rooms for children having behavioral issues, schools employ methods such as placing students in designated areas in their classrooms that are away from their peers.
“We deeply care about the safety of all of our students,” Ash said. “And in the school system every single day, that is absolutely our first priority.”
According to the complaint filed with the special education board, the woman who became Rose’s designated personal aide at Fiske in November 2005 had worked during the prior school year with a student in another district who was restrained in a chair for almost his entire school day.
Ash said the aide was hired specifically to work with Rose and that the aide’s employment ended when the child left the school.
Lichtenstein said that half of the settlement money went to legal fees, 25 percent went to a trust set up for Rose, and he and her mother each received 12.5 percent because of the impact on the family.
Ash described the settlement as a customary step when parents are seeking placement outside of the school district, which did not admit to any wrongdoing in the case.
Lichtenstein said a confidentiality agreement had precluded him from speaking out sooner, and he hopes that schools nationwide will stop using isolation rooms to control students, except in emergencies.
“The effect on her as a 5-year-old was devastating,” he said.
Omission: An earlier version of this story omitted a term of the settlement agreement that the girl’s parents reached with the Lexington school district. In addition to the $125,000 payment to the parents, the Lexington public schools also agreed to pay for education and treatment costs for the girl.