"Still a Terrifying Way to Discipline Children: The Sunday New York Times Expose One Month Later" by Bill Lichtenstein
Boston, MA, October 7, 2012 - On Sept. 9, 2012, my article, “A Terrifying Way to Discipline Children” was published in the New York Times Sunday Review/Opinion section (see article and related media at: www.TerrifyingDiscipline.com).
The article detailed the use by schools nationally of restraints and isolation rooms with students, including my then-5 year-old daughter, Rose. Over a three month period, while she was in kindergarten in Lexington, Mass., she was placed almost daily in what is today a mop closet, and what had previously served as a teachers’ phone booth. When Rose was there, it was outfitted as a seclusion room.
Her treatment led to a legal action against the town, resulting in a settlement of nearly $400,000, largely for her care and treatment to recover from the trauma and her resulting post-traumatic stress disorder. (Remember this fact because, later on, you will read that Lexington Public Schools now says I fabricated the story of my daughter’s abuse.)
No one disputes that my New York Times article shocked parents, educators and the public about schools' use of restraints and isolation rooms to manage kids. Since the article’s publication, other families have come forward to report similar abuse of their children. Other national news outlets, from Time magazine to the ABA Journal, picked up the story.
Lexington Public Schools, through its superintendent Paul Ash, who oversees its more than $73 million annual budget, initially responded to my article with four days of virtual silence, and then with flat denials. When I refuted their denials, they attacked me personally and publicly disputed minor, semantic details of my article.
By Sept 13, four days after my article ran, other parents had come forward to report that their children too had undergone such harsh treatment. One family, the Ernst's, had 19 reports of the alleged abuse endured by their son when he was in first and third grades in Lexington (see: www.bit.ly/MoreLexingtonAbuse ) And it didn’t stop there.
Mother of six, Lynne Harris, reported at a public meeting that she witnessed a child, whom she identified as my daughter Rose, being dragged kicking and screaming into the closet/isolation room in a basement stairwell at the Lexington school. Harris says she went directly to the school’s then-principal, Nancy Peterson, to report the incident, but was told by Peterson that it “was difficult to see, but a necessary thing.”
“[Peterson] said there's one [an isolation room] in every school. I remember being traumatized by seeing this little girl's screaming ‘no, no . . .’ You could tell this child knew where she was going, and she was yelling, ‘no, no.’"
Meanwhile, Peterson's deposition, taken in my daughter’s case, details the use of isolation rooms in three schools in Lexington, as well as similar rooms in the towns of Gloucester and Stoneham, Mass., during times she worked there. (Her deposition is on-line at: www.TerrifyingDiscipline.com )
Parents Scott and Tracy Saunders have also gone public with the details of the alleged abuse of their son in 2009, when he was age 3. The Saunders reported they witnessed a student support instructor from the Lexington Children's Place pre-school program, pulling their son’s hair and physically abusing the child on a videotape they set up when the instructor was working with their son in their home. The mother, a former newspaper photojournalist, and the father, a then-24 year veteran police lieutenant and commander of juvenile and criminal investigations at a police department in New Hampshire, filed reports with the Lexington police and schools, who reported it to the state child welfare agency, DCF. DCF supported a finding of neglect against the instructor, who was put on administrative leave. The Saunders have a pending lawsuit against Lexington in Middlesex Superior Court.
The response of Lexington School Superintendent Paul Ash to my article and the questions it raised has been to hire a PR/crisis manager, Karen Schwartzman, whom the Boston Globe reported on Sept. 13 was paid $5,000 in public school funds. However, rather than calming the situation and providing transparency to concerned parents and the public, Schwartzman has fostered controversy by attacking my story and me without any facts to back her up.
For example, Schwartzman told reporters that the 6-foot x 8-foot closet, which my daughter’s school had converted into a seclusion room, and which featured a single bare light bulb and neon blue gym pads hung from the walls, was in fact a “well-lit meeting room for one-on-one meetings between teachers and students.” (See photos of isolation room below and at www.TerrifyingDiscipline.com)
Schwartzman found a sympathetic ear in Sewall Chan, a former reporter and Times blogger, who was made Times deputy opinion page editor last year. Chan wrote a Sept. 16 editor's note, which contained the following false and unanswered claims from Lexington about both my article and me:
1) Lexington’s claim that the closet in which my daughter and other students were locked is in the “mezzanine,” and not in the basement of the school, as I reported. This is false. You can see the closet, in the school basement stairwell, at www.TerrifyingDiscipline.com ;
2) Lexington's claim, contrary to what I say in my article, that I did not file 51A child abuse reports about the isolation room with the state child welfare agency, DCF. This is also false. In fact, I did, at the time, and the logs from the state child welfare agency detailing the reports have been released to the media; and
3) Chan, in his editor’s note, wrote that a deposition, from our action against Lexington, directly disputes my account in my Times article of how our daughter was found.
This is false.
Chan wrote that “a 2008 deposition by the girl’s mother, state that she was then cleaned up and dressed while her parents were notified — and that it was not the case that the parents found her standing alone, unclothed, in her urine." That language does not exist in the deposition, was fully fabricated in the editor’s note, and contradicts all known facts regarding this issue. (See deposition and editor’s note at www.TerrifyingDiscipline.com)
Chan’s editor's note provided additional fuel for Schwartzman’s efforts to attack the article and me.
In a Sept. 16 article in the Boston Globe, which focused on the Times' editor's note, Schwartzman issued this false, unsubstantiated attack on me, my article and what happened to our daughter:
“Bill Lichtenstein strung together lie after lie to paint a picture of abuse that never happened,” Schwartzman said in an e-mail Saturday.”
That Friday, the Boston TV show, “Beat the Press,” echoed Lexington’s falsehoods, as well as new ones, including that my New York Times story, as an "op-ed," was never fact-checked by the newspaper. In fact, the story was not an op-ed, but was an article for the Review/Opinion Section, and the Times fact-checked it thoroughly.
On the local TV program, media critic Dan Kennedy was the only panelist to point out that Chan’s editor’s note was "not a correction, not a retraction"; that the story is "not being retracted in any sense"; and that the significant financial settlement in my daughter’s case, contrary to Lexington's ongoing position, indicated that there were serious issues involved.
Neither Chan nor the New York Times has responded to requests for a phone call from the Boston Globe and its reporter on the story going back to Sept. 15, when the editor’s note was published.
The issues Lexington raised about the facts in my article, combined with Chan’s editor’s note, have created a situation that is serious and troubling for several reasons. Lexington's ongoing unsubstantiated attacks on the Times article and me have served to deflect attention away from the real, serious issues regarding the safety of our kids in school. They have created confusion and misunderstanding among parents and the public regarding the use of restraints and seclusion rooms in schools and reports of abuse. In addition, the experience I have had, after going public with my daughter's story, cannot help but inhibit other parents from coming forward with their own experiences with restraints, seclusion rooms and abuses in schools, and inhibit other reporters from writing about this critically important matter.
As a parent and as a Peabody Award-winning print and broadcast journalist and documentary filmmaker, who has covered child welfare issues going back three decades, and has 60 major broadcast journalism honors to my credit, this situation concerns me greatly. I believe that parents must be heard, in Lexington, Mass., and across the country, on this matter involving public schools, public funds, and reports of the abuse of children. At the same time, an effort must be made to get all of the relevant facts in this matter on the table for public examination. That will likely require a full independent investigation, but it’s the least we can do for our children and our communities.