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Sunday, September 16, 2012

Seclusion and Schools: The Times Fact-Checks Lichtenstein's Op-Ed

A week ago, I posted a piece about an op-ed by Bill Lichtenstein that appeared in the New York Times on Sunday, Sept. 9, 2012. Lichtenstein described in his publication an event 6 years ago in which his kindergarten-age, language-delayed daughter was subjected to many episodes of seclusion in the Lexington, Mass public schools. Several readers queried the accuracy of Lichtenstein’s story, some in terms that I did not feel comfortable posting on this blog. I myself asked the Times public editor about the degree of fact-checking associated with op-eds and was told that they were scrutinizing the piece following its publication.

This morning, the “Week in Review” section of the Times includes an editor’s note, as follows:

“An opinion essay last Sunday criticizing the use of seclusion and restraint to discipline students described an episode on Jan.6, 2006, in which the writer’s daughter, then a kindergartner, was kept in an isolation room at her school in Lexington, Mass. Several details of that episode have since been disputed.

“The girl wet herself while being confined in a closet 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--  and that it was not the case that the parents found her standing alone, unclothed, in her urine.

“The article incorrectly described the closet where the girl was confined. It was on a mezzanine between two classroom levels, not in the basement.

“While the girl’s parents sued the Lexington school district in 2007, and obtained a settlement in 2008, the writer did not notify two Massachusetts state agencies—the Department of Children and Families and the Department of Mental Health—“at the time” of the episode, according to state records.

“The girl’s parents divorced in 2007. If The Times had known before the article was published that the writer’s ex-wife was now the girl’s custodial parent, it would have contacted her.”

One reader had commented on my blog post that she thought there was “more to the story” than was being presented. There certainly seems to be less—only slightly less--  to it than Lichtenstein’s story says. Some details were exaggerated, whether for vividness or because the writer’s memory was inaccurate or because the writer realized that most readers would not put themselves in the child’s place unless forced to. The child was not left alone and wet, the closet was not in the basement.

It’s a shame that these exaggerations were included, because they give people a good excuse to ignore or downplay the whole story. And the story is a serious one. We have inappropriate use of seclusion, for matters other than safety. We have seclusion of a young and language-delayed child whose understanding of the situation must have been minimal. We have the petty officialism that deprives a distressed young child of toilet facilities. We have inaccurate reports to parents about the child’s conduct and achievement in her first year in school.

We also have all these points in the context of a nation-wide concern voiced by the U.S. Department of Education, the subject of legislation in Kansas, and the topic of an investigation in Ohio that revealed a complete lack of staff training in the use of seclusion.

The unregulated use of seclusion in schools is a genuine problem and far more important than Bill Lichtenstein’s apparent misreporting of a personal experience.   

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