Leaked memo leaves schools speechless

Unanswered questions continue to hover around a controversial memo being used as evidence in a complaint filed with the state, claiming that Darien Schools are violating special education law.

The memo was drafted by new special education director, Deirdre Osypuk. In it, some parents allege, she directs her staff to engage in activities that appear to conflict with state and federal laws — laws that ensure all children receive a free and appropriate education. Now at least 18 parents have signed a complaint, asking the state to take over special education management in Darien.

The Darien Times has sent a Freedom of Information request to the schools to learn how many people saw the memo and if its suggestions have been implemented. Steve Falcone, schools superintendent, said it was “widely distributed to teachers and administrators.”

The memo was initially omitted after the schools responded to a Freedom of Information request asking for all documents outlining proposed special education programming changes. An unnamed whistleblower later sent the memo to parents. Falcone has since apologized for the omission, noting that it was “overlooked,” and not an attempt to suppress.

In an interview, Falcone said he didn’t learn about the memo until the complaint was filed. He declined to comment further.

But according to Andrew Feinstein, an attorney representing several parents who signed the complaint, the administration’s omission of the memo — while ostensibly an oversight — has exacerbated the problem, and is evidence that district is not only engaging in illegal activity, but is also attempting to hide it.

“The situation has become as difficult as it has because the Darien Public Schools failed to provide memos and PowerPoint presentations to parents when they requested them pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act last fall,” Feinstein wrote in a statement. “Had Darien met its statutory obligation to provide documents in a timely manner, the illegality would have been revealed and ended far earlier.”

Falcone said that in recent years he has received an increasing number of Freedom of Information requests.

“We have a protocol that we follow and do our best to provide the information requested,” Falcone stated. “In the recent request, at least one item was not included, a memorandum setting forth guidance in brief summary form on various special education issues. Not including this document in our response was an inadvertent oversight for which we apologize. However, it should be noted that the document in question was widely distributed to teachers and administrators, and there was no intent or effort to keep it internal or confidential.”

According to Feinstein, however, the administration also omitted a PowerPoint presentation. The Times has asked to inspect all documents disseminated among special education staff.

Osypuk reports directly to Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent. It’s unclear when Pandolfo learned of the memo and whether she was sent the memo when Osypuk wrote it in early November. Pandolfo did not respond to a request for comment.

Omission of the memo is further proof that the administration is trying to hide its actions, parents have said. If Falcone did know about it and left it out intentionally, he violated information law. If he did not know about it, then that calls into question the integrity of the schools’ chain of command, parents said, because the suggested changes outlined in the memo appear severe and would seem important enough to warrant distribution to all administrators.

Falcone said the memo was “widely disseminated,” yet also said he didn’t know it existed until the complaint was filed. When parents asked him specifically for a document that included the statement: “related service staff… are not to attend team meetings” — a statement alluded to in Osypuk’s memo — Falcone never responded, parents said.

The Darien Times has filed a Freedom of Information request asking to inspect all special education-related correspondence between anyone involved in special education in the town. The Times is also seeking information on state-wide complaints that are similar in scope and implication to the one filed by Darien parents. State officials said they have never, in recent history, ceased funding a public school because of violations to special ed law, nor have they taken over managing special ed in any municipality.

That is the outcome requested by parents in their complaint.

“The petition is an extreme and unusual procedure asking the state Department of Education to step in and take over special education in Darien due to Darien operating in contravention of federal special education law,” attorney Feinstein wrote.

In an interview with Falcone and Matt Byrnes, assistant superintendent, both became visibly uncomfortable when The Times implied that it had been contacted by district educators on this issue.

“Normally they come to us,” Falcone said. The Times asked if they had imposed any gag orders on staff to not talk to the press.

“That would be illegal,” Byrnes said, affirming that was not the case.

Parents, however, have said the schools have retaliated against children of parents who have signed the complaint, and that the “united front” mentality permeates the entire school culture.

Originally published in The Darien Times.


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