Metro

Lexington schools chief asks for state review of time-out rooms

Facing public pressure, Lexington schools Superintendent Paul Ash asked a state oversight agency Wednesday to review two reports of special education children left in time-out rooms and to determine whether there was any potential abuse by the district’s staff.

Parents and School Committee members called for an
independent review
this week, after a father wrote about his daughter’s experience in an op-ed article in The New York Times.

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While Ash maintains that school staff acted appropriately in that case, he said that asking the Department of Children & Families to investigate will restore public confidence in the district. “It’s the prudent thing to do,” Ash said.

In his op-ed article, Bill Lichtenstein said his daughter, then a kindergartner, was repeatedly placed in a small room during the 2005-2006 school year, to calm her down. The school called her parents at one point in January 2006 to pick her up because she had urinated on the floor of the time-out room and took off her clothes, he said.

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The district said that while separate time-out rooms were allowed at the time, they stopped in 2007.

Still, the account alarmed local parents, some of whom appeared at a School Committee meeting Tuesday and urged a comprehensive review.

Another parent said her son was placed in a "quiet room” on several occasions in May 2008, nearly a year after district officials barred the practice.

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Ash said he has not fully reviewed the second case but decided to let the state agency look into it, too.

Lichtenstein could not be reached for comment Wednesday. 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.

Barbara Visovatti, the parent in the other case, said the district’s decision to seek an outside investigation is a good first step.

“Any practice that would traumatize a child, even if it is not formally considered abuse, is not good practice in a school system,” Visovatti said.

The agency is reviewing Lexington’s submission and determining whether to investigate, as is its protocol, said Cayenne Isaksen, the department’s spokeswoman.

Lexington, which is routinely ranked among the top school districts in the state, has found itself trying to defend its stellar reputation amid the controversy. Ash hired a crisis management consultant this week for $5,000 to help the district deal with the media glare.

The district does not have a communications or public outreach employee and after the op-ed appeared in The New York Times, Ash said he knew there would be widespread attention on the district.

School Committee chairwoman Margaret Coppe said she hopes that parents will have confidence in the state agency’s determinations.

But Coppe said that she is concerned about how thorough the investigation will be considering the time that has passed, especially in the Lichtenstein case. Also many of the staff involved no longer work for the Lexington school district.

“Hopefully, we will find out what we need to find out,” Coppe said. “We’ll have to deal with the results.”

School Committee members and Lexington residents want to know how many times the children in the two cases were placed in a time-out room, for how long, how parents were informed and if there were any other children with similar experiences, Coppe said.

“In the end, we’ll have some answers of what happened and what the roles were of the individuals involved and we’ll proceed from there,” she said.

Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at dfernandes@globe.com
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