Auditi Guha, September 23, 2005
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parents charge that a special education teacher at the Mary Lyon
School in Brighton used a illegal, improper and possibly fatal
basket-hold restraint on their 5-year-old daughter last year.
After a year of pleading with school, city and state officials
and trying to get her transferred to another school, the two
parents began home-schooling their special needs daughter this
The school, and Boston Public Schools officials, refused to
speak on the allegation except to deny that the incident
"Confidentiality issues preclude me from discussing one
individual issue," said Deborah Rooney, principal of the Mary
Lyon School. "We deny the allegations, but I can't speak to the
specifics of this case."
School system spokesman Jonathan Palumbo also dismissed the
"The staff and teachers are saying there is no way this student
was restrained at all," Palumbo said. "I don't think we can talk
specifically about this incident."
Anaya Grushkin started kindergarten at the popular and
prestigious Brighton public school last year as a happy child,
after two successful years of preschooling at the Temple
Israel's Frances Jacobson Early Childhood Center in Boston,
according to parents Barry Grushkin and June Loeffler.
They were very concerned about choosing a new school because
Anaya has Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. This meant that
Anaya had developmental and sensory disorders that affected her
thinking, feeling, language and the ability to relate to others.
Anaya was assigned to the Lyon School, and her parents were
concerned to find their special child would not be given a
one-on-one aide in class, as recommended in her Individualized
Education Program, a federally mandated tool which guarantees
students with disabilities a tailored education plan to meet
their special needs. Since the staff assured them that they have
the experience and because the classes were small, they decided
to go ahead and enroll her.
The Lyon School's inclusion program integrates students with
moderate to severe special needs into regular classes, Rooney
said. While the school was originally designed to integrate
students with emotional and behavioral disorders, the student
population over the years has shifted to include students with
atypical neurological developments.
"It had a reputation of being a good school, but that's all we
knew," said Grushkin. "The school told us they had lots of
experience in such problems, but counselors and teachers
wouldn't say if they had any special experience in autism."
They met one teacher who had some experience with autistic
children, but not with experience with Asperger's syndrome, the
parents said. Rooney said every teacher in the elementary school
is trained in regular and special education, but did not provide
the kind of training or certification earned.
"All of the Lyon School staff are certified in regular and
special education, hold master's degrees and are trained
annually on the use of restraints and other techniques allowed
by state law and which have been reviewed and approved," Palumbo
said. "This is above and beyond what the state requires which is
one [trained staff] in each school."
They were not told the Lyon used restraints, Grushkin said,
until he witnessed it himself. He said he saw it first after
dropping in on the school to check on her in class last spring.
It was an hour before school was out. Anaya was not only
relieved to see him, she wanted to go home with him.
"I told her she had another hour, but she kept fussing,"
Anaya showed signs of anxiety by talking aloud and going round
and round in a circle, he said. He tried to calm her down, but
"the teacher came and asked me to leave, saying she would take
care of it."
Grushkin said the teacher used a basket-hold restraint on the
5-year-old. The instructor crossed the girl's arms about her and
held her from behind, working like a straitjacket. The teacher
then pushed her down, Grushkin said.
He was alarmed, but did not know much about it and said the
teacher told him to trust her and said she knew what she was
Palumbo said the school denied this incident ever happened. "The
accusation is absolutely false," he said.
State law prohibits the use of restraint as a disciplinary
measure and allows restraints to be used only when students pose
a serious threat to themselves or others, after other less
intrusive alternatives have failed, according to the Department
of Education Web site.
"Students turning over desks or throwing papers or even throwing
a chair" isn't enough, said Tim Sindelar, an attorney
specializing in child disability law recently told the Boston
Restraining children with Asperger's syndrome or other forms of
autism may even cause more harm than good, Sindelar said.
"Most schools have found much better intervention techniques
than restraint," said Mary Cerreto, associate professor of
family medicine and director of the Center on Self-Determination
and Health at Boston University Medical Center.
"Restraint doesn't do anything but stop an immediate situation,"
Cerreto said. "It does not teach the child what it is that she
should do correctly. It does not prevent future occurrences of
the behavior. Restraint, even when applied by trained
professionals, can be lethal."
Experts also say that the basket-hold can be extremely dangerous
unless a person has been trained in its use. Several children
have died from the improper use of such restraints, according to
assorted news reports and information from organizations like
the Citizens Commission on Human Rights.
In 1999, parent Jean Bowden testified at the State House against
the Barnstable schools where her special needs daughter was
illegally restrained. The case helped create the political
momentum for state restraint regulations for public schools in
Having heard of the allegations surrounding Anaya, Bowden said,
"You cannot restrain children without writing permission from
the parents. If you use restraints on children in an emergency,
they have to meet certain very strict criteria.
"I rather doubt they needed to do an emergency restraint on a
child as small as [Anaya]."
Bowden also pointed out that in the case of a basket-hold, on no
account should the subject lean forward and he must be standing;
otherwise it could lead to asphyxiation and even death.
State law also says that identified staff should undergo at
least 16 hours of training in order to use physical restraint.
The Mary Lyon Web site indicates that four of eight
paraprofessionals are enrolled in teacher training programs to
be certified to teach both regular as well as special education
It also mentions that after-school teachers are trained in
Therapeutic Crisis Intervention methods on how to de-escalate
poor student behavior. Crisis Intervention methods include
restraint use, Bowden said, but the basket-hold described by
Grushkin is not even a part of the Crisis Prevention Institute's
training, she added, having taken a CPI course herself last
Restraints are used
The Boston Schools' Palumbo said restraints, including the
basket-hold, are used in public schools, including at Mary Lyon,
to protect students.
"The use of restraints is allowable under the law," Palumbo
wrote in an e-mail. "I think there is a negative connotation to
restraints in this circumstance. A restraint is not a
punishment, it's an intervention, used to prevent the student
from harming him/herself."
The principal agreed.
"As an inclusion program, we take very seriously the importance
of providing a safe learning environment for all of our
students," Rooney said in an e-mail. "However, there are
instances during which we must use hands on to prevent a student
from hurting himself or others.
"This is always a last resort."
Other parents, who contacted the TAB at the school's request,
said they've had good experiences with the school.
West Roxbury resident Susan Clancy, whose son, Timothy, is in
the fifth grade and has an anxiety disorder, said he has
performed wonderfully ever since he was transferred to the Mary
Lyon two years ago.
"He has hope and confidence and faith in himself. He has
blossomed there," she said. "This is one person who is upset,
but I know so many families there who feel the same way that I
"I think it's a fantastic school," added James Cody, another
West Roxbury parent whose son, John, has attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder, which makes it hard for him to control
his behavior or pay attention, and has been in the school for
four years. "After we were able to place him here we've had a
fantastic experience with them. He's made substantial academic
and social progress."
Grushkin and Loeffler said that all special needs children are
not the same, and they feel the school is ill-equipped to deal
with the Anaya's issues. Rooney said there other autistic
children there who have been well served by the school and
pointed to their test scores and proven record of success.
"We work very closely with parents of special education
children," she said. "Many come from other programs and schools
because of the hard work of our teachers here."
There are a total of 116 students at the Lyon, of whom 45.6
percent are in special education programs, according to Palumbo.
Grushkin said his daughter never had behavior problems before
she attended the school and enjoyed preschool and summer camps
After a semester at Mary Lyon, she became increasingly reluctant
to go to school, often cried while at school and started having
In December, she had an accident in the bathroom at school.
Hypersensitive to soiled or wet clothes, Anaya began to scream
hysterically asking to be changed. Her teachers made her wait so
that she learn the consequences of her action, which only made
matters worse for a child on the autism spectrum, the parents
Grushkin learned this when two of Anaya's classmates asked why
she screams in class, when he visited one day. Upset about the
way Anaya was behaving and being treated in the classroom, he
said he approached the principal. He said Rooney said they would
look into it and told him he had no right soliciting information
from other children, he said.
By April, Anaya's anxiety levels increased, according to her
family. She was taking hours to fall asleep and was having
nightmares that were keeping her and her parents up all night.
"She said she was being held down by giant sunflowers and being
stung by bees - they were horrible, horrible dreams," Grushkin
said. "She turned into a really frightened girl. My daughter
wasn't socializing earlier and had problems, but she used to be
a happy child."
After visits to counselors and psychologists, Anaya's parents
were worried that her experiences at school were frightening her
further and even causing her to regress from the progress she
"The therapist said it sounded like post-traumatic stress
syndrome," said Loeffler.
"The teachers and principal denied my request for training that
I offered to pay for," Grushkin said. "When we started asking
questions and talking to other parents and taking notes,
teachers were getting upset. They were saying, 'How dare you get
into the way of what we are trying to do.'"
Once they started asking questions and complaining, Anaya's
parents said the school and teachers were most unwilling to let
them observe class even though the Mary Lyon School Web site
states: "Because the idea of integrating seriously disturbed
students in regular education classes is new, we ask all of our
parents to test us and come to our school unannounced, any time
from 7:15 a.m. until 5 p.m. to observe our school progress."
But the Boston Public Schools' general policy on visiting is
that all must be cleared through the principal's office in
advance. Visitors must also sign in with the principal, Palumbo
"As a policy, we really can't allow anyone, parent or otherwise,
to just show up at a school," he said, citing legal and safety
Unhappy with her progress and the school, the parents requested
Anaya be transferred to another public school. They visited
different schools and met principals they felt had good
experience and could help their daughter. But their requests for
a transfer, they said, fell on deaf ears. So they pulled their
Palumbo said placements depend on the number of openings and on
a case-by-case basis. "Transfers are granted in instances where
the school requested has available seats," he said.
"She's my daughter. She was not having these problems before
these incidents at school," Loeffler said. "The school wasn't
very receptive to us ... The [public school] system just doesn't
work [for Anaya]. I have always felt that Boston was never on my
Lyon parent Cody, who is very pleased with his son's experience
at the school, also said he had a tough time working with the
Boston Public Schools before being granted a transfer.
His son, John, who has been on an IEP since first grade, was
also restrained at a public school in Boston and kept back, he
"We had substantial problems," Cody said. "They thought he was a
problem child and kept him out of the classroom. We had to go
through a lot dealing with the special education department.
They blocked our every move and didn't cooperate at all."
Grushkin said he has repeatedly asked that his daughter be
transferred after the incident, preferably to the Mason
Elementary School or the Baldwin Early Learning Center. Palumbo
said those schools are among the city's most popular, so few
spots are available for transfer.
Grushkin said he would have accepted a spot at another school,
and that he is considering his legal options.
"Boston, as a school system, fights parents tooth-and-nail on
special education issues," said Grushkin, who said he knows of
parents who are suing the school. "They don't do anything until
a lawyer steps in. We can't afford that.
"It is also true that, in all cases, this fight has nearly
bankrupted the parents and torn them and their families apart
emotionally. Parents have threatened all sort of things, but it
is hard to get the school to stop. We are all perplexed as to
why this school and, perhaps, now many other schools in [the
Boston Public Schools] are doing this."
Grushkin and Loeffler allege there are other parents who have
similarly suffered at the school who are too scared to speak
Palumbo said he is not aware of any other issues or pending
cases at the school.
"I don't think that two families out of over 45,000 necessary
constitutes a lack of support in the district," he responded.
Loeffler said she is horrified at the way the school and Boston
has treated them and their inquiries so far. "It's like as you
they teach a kid to swim by throwing her in the water and if she
doesn't swim, you can spend $20,000 in legal fees to stop her
from drowning," Loeffler said, her voice breaking.
"I felt like my daughter was emotionally drowning in her last
weeks there. I wish we had pulled her out sooner."
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