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Times says op-ed on Lexington schools had inaccuracies

Bill Lichtenstein

Bill Lichtenstein

In response to the Lexington School District, The New York Times acknowledged Saturday that last Sunday’s op-ed article by a local father — about the school’s use of an isolation room for his daughter — contained some inaccuracies and disputed information.

In an editor’s note that was published online Saturday and in the Sunday paper, aspects of Bill Lichtenstein’s piece were called into question, including his description of finding his kindergarten-age daughter, who received special education services, locked in a basement mop closet in January 2006, “standing naked in a pool of urine, looking frightened as she tried to cover herself with her hands.”

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According to the editor’s note, Lichtenstein’s daughter wet herself while confined for misbehaving. “But school officials and a 2008 deposition by the girl’s mother, state that she was then cleaned up and dressed while her parents were notified,” the note states.

The newspaper’s note said the room was on a mezzanine, not in the basement, and that Lichtenstein did not notify the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Mental Health about the incident at the time, as he said he did.

Lichtenstein initial op-ed, published online last Saturday and in last Sunday’s paper, sparked a public outcry in Lexington.

Karen Schwartzman, a crisis management consultant the district hired to help with the controversy, called Lichtenstein’s account of his daughter’s experience a “fabrication.”

“Bill Lichtenstein strung together lie after lie to paint a picture of abuse that never happened,” Schwartzman said in an e-mail Saturday.

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In a phone interview, Lichtenstein said he stood by his account and is continuing conversations with The New York Times about the editors’ note. The Times did not respond to ­e-mails for comment Saturday.

“At the end of the day, the truth will come,” Lichtenstein said. “Lexington has hired a PR person and has been maliciously and recklessly attacking me.”

Lichtenstein’s daughter attended Fiske Elementary School as a kindergartner during the 2005-2006 school year. But soon after the January 2006 incident, her parents pulled her out of the school, according to documents.

Lichtenstein and his former wife filed a complaint with the state’s Board of Special Education Appeals in 2008, and 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 the child’s further education and treatment.

At the time, according to Superintendent Paul Ash, Lexington used time-out rooms to calm children, in line with state guidelines. The district stopped using the rooms in 2007, he said.

Ash has said that based on a review of the case file the school staff acted appropriately in the case.

However, Lexington parents, upset by the op-ed piece, last week demanded an independent review of the district’s use of such a time out room.

In response, Ash asked the state’s Department of Children and Families to investigate the Lichtenstein case and that of another child held in time out. A third family has also come forward in recent days and asked that the district review the use of seclusion and restraints on their son between 2001-2003.

Ash has said that he asked the state agency to review the cases to restore public confidence in the school district.

But district officials have also aggressively disputed elements of Lichtenstein’s op-ed.

While Lexington acknowledges that the room Lichtenstein’s daughter was placed in was small — 10 feet by 6 feet — Schwartzman said the padded room was also used by teachers for one-on-one instruction. It was not used for storage and would not be considered a mop closet, she said.

The school did also use a traditional classroom with windows as a time-out room. But if school officials were concerned that a student might break glass or posed a risk to themselves, they were placed in the smaller room with padding, Schwartzman said.

The smaller room had a door with a window, so staff could monitor students. Under the district’s protocol, a staff member was required to be with the child or standing outside the door and checking on the student every five minutes, she said.

According to the district, the door was not locked when students were inside, Schwartzman said.

According to documents Lichtenstein and his wife filed with the state before the settlement, their daughter was held in the room for multiple five-minute intervals, in some cases lasting up to an hour. The school department has not disputed this.

In its editors’ note, The Times also said the paper had been unaware that Lichtenstein’s former wife is the daughter’s custodial parent and it should have contacted her before the op-ed was published.

Lichtenstein said he did not contact his former wife before the article ran; that was The Times’ fact-checker’s responsibility, he said.

“That wasn’t my job,” Lichtenstein said.

The couple divorced in 2007, according to court papers. His wife declined to comment for this story.

Lichtenstein said he consulted with legal experts and colleagues for months before deciding to come forward about his daughter’s experience, and reaction to his daughter’s case has been compassionate. The agreement with the Lexington school district bars the publication of any article about the settlement.

He said decided to tell his daughter’s story to draw attention to the use of seclusion rooms in public schools nationwide as a way to deal with special education children.

“From a public welfare perspective, it was for the net good,” he said.

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

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