Complaint against schools gains steam

Another piece of potential evidence has surfaced claiming special needs children in Darien Schools are not being given a proper education under the law.

Seven more parents have signed on to the complaint since it was filed with the state on March 20, including former Board of Education member Amy Bell. Bell declined to comment for this article.

The new evidence, parents say, is a PowerPoint presentation given by new special education director Deirdre Osypuk. The presentation, parents allege, was one of two “smoking guns” that the schools omitted from Freedom of Information requests they filed.

The other omitted document was a memo drafted by Osypuk and “widely distributed” among staff, according to Steve Falcone, superintendent. Falcone, however, denied knowing about the memo’s existence until the complaint was filed.

In a prepared statement, he also said “at least one item was not included” when he answered the request, and named the memo. He did not, however, address the PowerPoint presentation.

He also said the memo has been taken out of context, but he has declined to provide that context and has chosen to let his version of events play out in the complaint process. Any notion of ambiguity around the memo’s contents and its relative context is laid to rest in the PowerPoint, according to Andrew Feinstein, an attorney representing several of the parents who filed the complaint.

In the supplement to the complaint filed on Thursday, April 4, Feinstein said “if there was any suggestion that the memorandum previously submitted was an aberration, this PowerPoint presentation refutes such an argument.”

The 25-page electronic presentation contains one page that “essentially strips the PPT of the right to design an appropriate individualized program for each student, disenfranchises the parent, and instructs staff to engage in improper predetermination,” the supplement states.

The planning and placement team, or PPT, should consist of the parent of the disabled student, the student, at least one special education teacher, at least one regular education teacher, if the student is in a regular classroom, and a school representative “who is qualified to provide, or supervise” special education instruction, knows the general education curriculum and the resources available through the schools, according to federal law. This team then develops the individualized education plan, or IEP, for each child with special needs.

“By requiring administrator approval of any placement or service into the PPT meeting, the Darien school administration is preventing the PPT from doing its job,” the supplement reads. “The IEP Team meeting, called a PPT in Connecticut, is core of the special education process.”

The Supreme Court ruled in Board of Education v. Rowley that “It seems to us no exaggeration to say that Congress placed every bit as much emphasis upon compliance with procedures giving parents and guardians a large measure of participation at every stage of the administrative process as it did upon the measurement of the resulting IEP against a substantive standard.”

The PowerPoint page suggests that special education staff discuss with Osypuk certain IEP recommendations before going into a PPT. Some of the recommendations Osypuk suggested required her input include outside placement in another school, outside evaluations, one-on-one aides, one-on-one instruction, extended day services, outside consultants and other services. This restricts the PPT’s legal right to set a child’s IEP, parents said.

The slideshow was given to special education staff early in the year, the supplement claims, and has Osypuk’s name on it, along with Carleen Wood, assistant director of secondary special education. The document outlines how the special ed department will meet the district’s objectives, which include assigning “staff efficiently and effectively.”

Also supporting the parents’ theory that the schools are engaging in predetermination without parents’ involvement is the leaked memo, they said, where Osypuk suggests going into a PPT under a “united front.” Falcone has since expressed regret for her using that term.

The “mission,” as purported the PowerPoint presentation, also excludes parents as it proclaims to “promote proactive communication between general and special education programs, staff, and administrators so all students can have access to learner-centered instruction…”

The supplemental complaints outlines eight additional examples that parents say prove the state needs to cease funding the town and take over special education service delivery — both unprecedented actions in recent history, according to the state.

“The legally unsound instructions contained in this PowerPoint presentation have been used throughout the Darien school district this year to improperly cut services to students with disabilities and to deny or discontinue eligibility to other students,” Feinstein wrote.

District response

Falcone and Board of Education chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross stand behind the district’s actions. They have commented little on the memo or PowerPoint, but instead have focused on defending the “new direction” taken by the district.

“First, it is important for me to be clear that we do not agree that there have been systematic violations of parental rights under” federal law, Falcone wrote in a prepared statement. “In fact, children and families do have due process rights and can request responses or hearings as part of an appeal process.”

Ten complaints have been filed individually against the schools in the past few months, along with five due process hearings. Complaints are a “signed, written grievance of sufficient detail to indicate that an education agency may have failed to comply with a requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and/or with a requirement of the Connecticut laws regarding special education,” states the Department of Education.

A due process hearing is similar to a court proceeding and involves an “impartial hearing officer” to decide the outcome. Legal counsel is often present on both sides.

Falcone said this number of cases is no more or less than in previous years. Preliminary information from the state confirms Falcone’s statement. Feinstein, however, said the allegations are far too widespread to rely on individual hearings.

“There can be no justification to require dozens of families to go through the time, aggravation and expense of due process hearings to correct the illegal acts of the Darien Public Schools,” Feinstein wrote.

Parents indicated they came to the schools and the Board of Ed early in the year looking for help but were met with deaf ears. At Hagerty-Ross’s request, parents sent them a list of questions on March 5.

The schools “were in the process of gathering information when the complaint was filed with the state,” Hagerty-Ross stated in an email.

Did parents jump the gun filing the complaint?

“Every day that a child does not receive appropriate services is one day too long,” one parent who signed the complaint said, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of retribution by the schools. “By March, months had passed of parents expressing their concerns to their administrators in school meetings, within the advisory board and by individual parents meeting with the administration.”

Falcone denied any retribution is taking place. One parent, however, removed her name from the complaint because her child’s special ed programming changed the day after the complaint was filed. Other parents have avoided signing the complaint for the same reason, two parents told The Times.

Hiring the director

Osypuk came to Darien after four years of being director of student services in Bloomfield, heading special education administration. Trained as a psychologist, Osypuk notes in her application to work in Darien, that her leadership style has “led to many teachers moving their students up one level on CMT’s [Connecticut Mastery Tests] and making progress on benchmark assessments.”

However, data from the state Department of Education paints a slightly different picture. The CMTs are given to students in grades three through eight and cover reading, math and writing, and in some grades science. There is also the Connecticut Academic Performance Test, or CAPT, which measures similar subjects, and is given to 10th graders. All students, including those with disabilities, are supposed to take this test, and each school has a specific goal to achieve that is relative to its past scoring.

The state uses CMT and CAPT scores to create what’s called a School Performance Index, or SPI. This is an average of student performance in all tested grades and subjects for a given school. The target SPI, which is done on a scale from 0-100, is 88, according to the state.

Under Osypuk’s leadership, students with disabilities at Carmen Arace Middle School scored lower on CMTs two out of three years from 2009 to 2012, going from an SPI of 55.8 in 2009-10, to 44 the next year, to 38.5 the next. Osypuk took over as head of the special ed department in 2008.

Over at Carmen Arace Intermediate School, which serves fifth and sixth graders, a similar pattern emerges. Students with disabilities had an SPI of 47 in 2009-10, down to 45.4 the next year, and down to 43.7 the next year. Her last year the SPIs at both schools did go up, however. High school data was not available.

One Bloomfield parent told The Darien Times that Osypuk did the same thing 25 Darien parents claim she’s doing — slashed IEPs and illegally transitioned people into general education to save money.

“We couldn’t fight her,” the Bloomfield parent said, referencing the relatively low-income population in that town. “But now she’s in a town where people have resources. I knew this would happen.”

Evidence suggesting Osypuk illegally placed kids into the general education population is scant, but one piece of information could be telling: the total school population in Bloomfield decreased by 4.1% from 2008-09 to 2009-10, but the special ed population decreased by nearly triple that figure at 11%, according to state data.

By contrast, Darien’s special ed population and total population both increased during that same period, and the statewide population fell by less than a percent, while the special ed numbers remained the same.

Osypuk has deferred comment to Falcone. Parents and educators close to the situation say that from the beginning, Osypuk has not tried to get to know parents or staff, but instead had come in and “bullied” them to following the “new direction.” Some parents said that she is merely doing what the district hired her for — to cut costs at whatever the expense.

Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent and Osypuk’s primary supervisor, also deferred comment to Falcone. This chain of command could leave Falcone without direct knowledge of what’s going on, parents said.

While searching for a new special ed director, parents provided proof to the Darien Times that they wanted to be involved in some capacity with the search. Falcone said he couldn’t recall anyone asking to be involved, and said that parents are rarely included in the search process for administrators.

Pointing to the departure of special ed director Robin Pavia, assistant director Laura Conte and Ox Ridge Principal John Rechi, himself a former special education instructor, Ox Ridge parents were particularly concerned with assisting in the search. Some parents said Pandolfo was adamant about not listening to them when they expressed desire to participate.

In Osypuk’s leadership statement on her employment application, she hardly mentions parents’ role in special education. Twice, however, she cites “adult fears” and how they can be “addressed.”

In a writing prompt, she suggests that the state cease educating special needs children until they are 21.

“The later age comprises adults, not children,” Osypuk wrote. She does, however, advocate for the state to make it mandatory to start teaching children at age 3 instead of 6, according to her application.

“I am proposing a revision of the law that balances what the research tells us about best practice and what is fiscally practical in light of pressures put upon Superintendents to present 0% budgets to Boards of Education,” she wrote.

Parents wanted to make it clear that they are not out for a witch-hunt against Osypuk, who they said has become a district scapegoat created by a school system that focuses on hiding policy changes, ignoring parents’ concerns and standing behind a “united front.”

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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