District, board defend policies, parents seek justice

“It’s a nightmare.”

These words come from a special education professional with close knowledge of what’s happening with special education in Darien’s public school system.

Some are pointing to recently hired special education director, Deirdre Osypuk, as having created the “nightmare,” others consider the situation is evidence that schools are only concerned about cutting costs and keeping key information from parents, enabled by a detached Board of Education.

The schools, and the Board of Ed, have denied any unlawful activity, despite at least 18 parents filing a complaint with the state Department of Education, claiming the schools are slashing services illegally to save money. The complaint is asking for the state to take over managing special ed in town, and cease state and federal money in the interim — both unprecedented demands in recent history, according to Kelly Donnelly, communication director for the state education department.

Steve Falcone, schools superintendent, said, “It is disheartening to hear” that people think the schools are gutting services to save money.

“… I have heard this — that we have little or no regard for the child or for the law,” Falcone wrote in an emailed statement. “Nothing could be further from the truth. We are obligated to provide all children with a ‘free and appropriate education’.”

Some parents and others close to the situation disagree.

According to sources from Bloomfield — the district where Osypuk worked before coming to Darien — and other special education professionals who know Osypuk, Darien hired her simply to rein in costs at whatever the price.

“I’m so glad she’s gone,” one Bloomfield parent told The Times. “You shouldn’t have to fight this hard to protect your child’s interests.”

Others confirmed that several special education teachers left Bloomfield once Osypuk took over in 2008. The same has happened in Darien. Julie Bookbinder, former director of the speech and language program, resigned at the beginning of the school year after Osypuk took over. Bloomfield officials have declined to comment, as has Falcone regarding Bookbinder’s departure. The Times has requested resignation letters from all special education employees who have resigned since Osypuk started.

In a statement, Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Ed chairman, did not address the seriousness of the accusations themselves, but instead expressed “concern that such allegations were made.”

“However, any such complaint is cause for concern,” Hagerty-Ross said, later adding that the “administration strongly objects to the mischaracterizations of district practices in the complaint, and both the administration and the Board [of Education] look forward to any such hearing so that we may set the record straight.”

When asked if teachers had filed complaints regarding Osypuk’s management style and program changes, superintendent Falcone declined to comment. He said, however, that not all complaints come to him. Osypuk reports directly to Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent.

Pandolfo could not be reached for comment. Osypuk deferred comment to Falcone “as the spokesperson for the district.”

Representatives from the Connecticut Education Association, the teachers’ union that represents Darien teachers, did not respond to requests for comment on whether there are grievances filed against Osypuk, Pandolfo, Falcone or other administrators as a result of the alleged changes in special education.

In a statement sent to The Times at its request, Falcone addressed the district’s rationale for current special ed practices.

“As we have engaged in the process of reviewing all of our local processes and procedures,” Falcone stated, “the two problems we have most frequently found are that we have not organized resources in an efficient, effective manner, or we are providing services without having done our due diligence as it pertains to data analysis and identified student needs during the decision-making process in our PPT meetings.”

The schools have never been out of compliance regarding its special education delivery, current state records show.

Parents’ claims

Many parents said they became suspicious that special education changes did not have their children’s best interests at heart when individualized education programs, or IEPs, began to be slashed. Each child in a special education setting is required to have an IEP that has targeted goals for a school year, and parents are supposed to be involved in the development of the IEP through membership in the planning and placement team, or PPT.

Then word got out that a memo drafted by Osypuk was being circulated — a memo outlining changes to special ed delivery. Once parents received the memo, through an unnamed source within the school system, their fears were validated, they said.

In the memo, Osypuk, who held a similar position in Bloomfield from 2008 to 2012, informs the reader that the school representatives of the planning and placement team, or PPT, enter a PPT meeting under a “united front.” The parents’ complaint calls this decision the most “egregious,” as parents are members of a PPT, and since 2007, children are also supposed to be invited to the PPT.

In Taylor v. Board of Education, the U.S. Court of Appeals found that any “procedural inadequacies that result in the loss of educational opportunity… or seriously infringe the parents’ opportunity to participate in the IEP formulation process… clearly results in a denial of” that child’s lawful right to a free and appropriate public education, what’s known as FAPE.

If “changes are going to be recommended, differences among team members need to be worked out prior to PPT,” Osypuk wrote.

Andrew Feinstein, an attorney representing several parents who signed the complaint, said this statement in particular is the most “egregious,” as it encourages “predetermination,” something clearly forbidden under special education law.

Falcone intially declined to comment on this accusation, stating, “it would not be appropriate to respond in this forum to the concerns,” opting instead to let the facts emerge during the state’s upcoming investigation.

After being urged by The Times to address the allegations in the memo, or at least clarify the “united front” comment, Falcone sent a later statement: “We regret using the term ‘united front,’ for example, because some could misinterpret it to be an indication of a predetermination of a PPT decision,” Falcone wrote. “That was not our intent, nor has it been our practice as I believe data would support. It was simply a reminder to staff not to surprise colleagues at the meeting with new information.”

The memo also notes that the district no longer employs a feeding and swallowing team “due to members leaving [the] district or electing to no longer serve.”

State and federal law requires that a school district employ people who are trained and qualified to provide feeding and swallowing assistance to children who require that service. In an interview, Falcone said the staff currently providing the services are qualified. Five children in Darien require assistance with eating and swallowing, according to school records.

But the loss of a feeding and swallowing team also appears to conflict with the philosophical framework outlined by the state regarding this service.

“A team approach to evaluation and intervention is required to address the multiple needs of children suspected of having, or diagnosed with, feeding or swallowing problems,” states the Department of Education. “While a case manager approach may be used, no single discipline can or should have sole responsibility for the numerous activities required to ensure a child’s safe eating and drinking.”

Parents also claim that Osypuk has restricted the availability of extended school year services by using a single criteria to determine if a special ed student is eligible for summer school.

In the memo, Osypuk states that data must “indicate regression and failure to recoup within six to eight weeks.” This means the student needs to show that she or he has gone backward instead of forward as far as reaching an IEP goal or goals.

However, the state requires a district examine “nonregression” factors also, such as, among other things, “The student’s progress in the areas of learning crucial to attaining self-sufficiency and independence from caretakers,” according to a topic brief on extended year services published by the state.

Falcone declined to comment on changes in determining eligibility for extended school year services. In his statement, he mentioned that the district is trying to improve its efficiency by focusing more closely on what’s called “eligibility criteria,” which are state guidelines that outline what services are appropriate for a child with certain needs.

“We are working to assure that school personnel employ these criteria consistently across the district and with fidelity,” Falcone wrote, adding that there have been several areas within special ed where the district has found potential for savings.

“In these situations, no student services were cut or reduced, but a more efficient service delivery model has resulted in modest savings,” he said.

Osypuk’s memo also suggests that “Nurses are no longer involved” in requests by parents to have their children taught at home.

“All requests for homebound should be directed to Dr. Osypuk,” the memo states.

Homebound services can be provided for children in the general education population who might have fallen ill and need to be schooled at home, according to state statute. In that case, a physician’s note may be required for homebound to be implemented.

Homebound services for special ed children can also be recommended by the placement team — the PPT. Osypuk’s memo does not address this protocol. Falcone declined to comment.

Osypuk also suggests that only students with physical disabilities are eligible for adaptive physical education, which is a less strenuous and more individualized form of PE. Federal law requires children be educated in the least restrictive environment, and, to the extent it’s possible, alongside typically developing peers.

However, a student’s psychomotor abilities are not the only criteria that schools should consider, according to a report in the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, the entity the state refers to when discussing eligibility for adaptive PE.

At “least two forms of measurement should be used,” the association states. “The team must take behavior, sensory needs, socialization skills, ability to perform with the class and individualized goals — as well as parent preferences — into consideration when making decisions regarding placement and providing services.”

District response

In her statement, Board of Ed Chairman Hagerty-Ross said that “the administration will be responding to the parents as well as to the Commissioner of Education regarding those concerns, and in that response it will provide context and clarification to the points outlined in the memorandum.”

The complaint emerged after months of an unresponsive Board of Ed and an administration that withheld key documents from a Freedom of Information request, parents have said.

Parents sent an email to Hagerty-Ross in early January, requesting an audience to discuss their concerns about potential violations to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, according to emails provided by parents. Hagerty-Ross asked them to provide them with a list of questions, which the parents sent 25 days later.

The Board of Ed has yet to respond, according to parents. The questions were sent on March 5. After 15 days without getting a response — and no acknowledgment of the questions nor a suggested time for a meeting — the parents filed their complaint. Hagerty-Ross has not commented on this communication between her and parents. Parents claim she was advised by her lawyer to not meet with them.

An educator who wished to remain anonymous told The Times that when Osypuk took over she told her staff, “There’s a new sheriff in town. The old sheriff and the old ways are gone.”

The old sheriff was Robin Pavia, now retired. Pavia has also learned of this memo and its implications.

“If some of those statements alleged in the memo are true, it’s troubling,” Pavia said. She declined to comment further.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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