When the Boker family moved to the Boston area from Israel, finding a town with a top-rated school system was a priority. Lexington shot to the top of their list.
“We moved to Lexington for the excellent school system,” said Holly Boker, the mother of twin boys who require special education services. “There was a high level of professionalism. That’s what attracts a lot of people to Lexington.”
The suburban Boston town may be best known for its Revolutionary War roots and the men dressed in Colonial garb who help kick off high school graduation ceremonies. But the community also collects academic honors, with the intensity that other school districts amass sports trophies.
Boston Magazine recently ranked Lexington High School the second best in the metro area. Its students have some of the highest SAT scores in the region and attend top tier colleges. Realtors boast about the town’s academic achievements to potential home buyers on websites: one Lexington-based company is simply called Good School Realty.
But a controversial Sept. 9 New York Times op-ed piece by a father who said his special-education daughter was placed in a small, padded timeout room in 2006 has shaken confidence in the district, and also brought complaints from two other parents about similar treatment of their children to the surface.
‘I think parents are concerned that the administration may not know everything that is taking place in the schools.’
“It’s not the type of thing that we expect to happen here,” said Jessie Steigerwald, a School Committee member.
Parents have called her concerned and they “want to be reassured,” Steigerwald said.
School Superintendent Paul Ash has asked the state’s Department of Children & Families to look into some of the allegations. Lexington School Committee members have also held meetings to discuss timeout rooms and the education of children with special needs. And Ash hired a consultant last month to help the district handle the public relations storm.
In addition, the school district raised questions about some of the details in the father’s account, prompting the Times to issue an editor’s note.
The vast majority of Lexington parents are happy with their children’s experience in the school district, Ash said in an interview. Otherwise, he said, many more residents would have complained in recent weeks.
“We’re a strong school district,” Ash said. “I haven’t come to the conclusion that we abused any children. But there are some people who are very upset. . . . We’re not perfect, sometimes we need to do things better.”
Yet parents have raised concerns about the level of special education services their children receive and the need for more collaboration from the district. The controversy has also prompted conversations in Lexington about when children with special needs and behavioral issues should get more intensive care than school settings can provide.
The superintendent, who has been criticized in the past for his aloofness and lack of visibility in the community, said he is listening to parents’ concerns. In recent days, he has attended meetings with parents and followed up with phone calls.
One of those who met with Ash is Wendy Ernst, who said her son was put in a timeout room and restrained multiple times in school in Lexington from 2001-2003. Ernst said she appreciated the chance to express her family’s frustration and anger and that Ash called back to make sure that the matter was resolved.
While the district did not ask the state to review the Ernst case, because the events occurred too long ago, Ash did apologize for the impact it had on the family when he met privately with them, Ernst said.
“We need to be listened to, we need to be heard,” Ernst said.
Lexington prides itself on the variety of special education programs the schools offer and the percentage of its special needs students — 71 percent, compared with 5 8 percent statewide — who are in fully inclusive classrooms with general education students. But the town, like many others, faces budget pressures and sending children to specialized or therapeutic programs out of the district is significantly more expensive.
Lexington has about 6,400 students. Of those, about 1,200 are classified as having special needs and require additional services in speech and language, behavioral and emotional disorders and physical therapy. A smaller portion, about 100 students, receive schooling outside of the district because Lexington can’t provide the required care.
Lexington has relied on timeout procedures to calm students for years and continues to do so. But after 2007, the district stopped placing children in padded rooms, where teachers would stand outside a closed door and look in, similar to what was described in the Times piece, said Ash, who also stressed that the district always followed state procedures.
Now, children with behavioral issues who need a timeout are placed in a partitioned-off section in their classroom. Some Lexington schools use a multipurpose room near the classroom, and a staff member is either in the room with the child, or stands outside with an opened door, Ash said.
The state allows timeout procedures — defined as when a staff member is accessible to a child — but prohibits seclusion. It is unclear how frequently timeout is used in Lexington, but when a student is repeatedly placed in timeout, the parent in notified, Ash said.
Since the Lexington controversy, timeout and restraint procedures have drawn statewide attention. Superintendents, school committee, members and special education directors have been talking about their policies and practices and whether they are legal and appropriate, said Thomas Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
“Anytime you have something like this come up, it’s certainly had a considerably lot of press attention, it causes people to reflect,” Scott said.
Richard Robison, the executive director of the Federation for Children with Special Needs, said every few years his organization will hear about a district in Massachusetts using a separate room or space for children in special education.
“When this comes to light and when the parent complains, often the practice comes to a quick halt,” Robison said.
Robison said when he visited a suburban Boston school two years ago, he noticed a small closet-sized room without any furniture and just two pads on the floor. The room had been set up for a child who had cleared the bookshelves after she had been sent to the main office, Robison said.
The school stopped using the room after the superintendent found out, he said.
Parent Holly Boker said she is still pleased that her family moved to Lexington six years ago and her twins have thrived in the Lexington school district, although she has occasionally had to push for services.
Boker said she understands why parents feel a little shaken after the recent controversy over the treatment of special education children. Parents want to make sure that their children are safe when they go to school, she said.
In response, Lexington’s special education parent advisory group plans to conduct a satisfaction survey to gauge parent concern and areas where the district can improve. “I think the administration is doing everything to make sure that children are safe,” Boker said. “I think parents are concerned that the administration may not know everything that is taking place in the schools.”
@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe