Schools’ lawyer: ‘Mistakes were made’

Illegal activity. Cover-ups. Omissions. Lying. Retribution. Intimidation.

These are but a few of the allegations being thrown at the Darien School district by parents concerned that the schools are not providing some special needs children with the appropriate education they’re entitled to under the law.

Until now, the schools, led by Superintendent Steve Falcone, and the Board of Education, chaired by Betsy Hagerty-Ross, have been reluctant to address specific allegations, which hinge on claims that new special education director Deirdre Osypuk is exerting too much control over the services children receive, which if true could violate federal law as that decision is supposed to be made by a team that includes parents.

In March, 25 parents signed an unprecedented petition with the state Department of Education, demanding the state withhold state and federal money from Darien Schools and take over managing special ed in town.

In an exclusive interview with one of the schools’ attorneys, Tom Mooney of Shipman & Goodwin, The Darien Times has pieced together a story that highlights where the schools went wrong and what could happen as a result.

Speaking from his Hartford office, Mooney noted how “hindsight is 20/20,” and spent some time referring to mistakes made by the district before and after the complaint’s filing.

“Does the [Board of Ed] say these policies are great? The answer is no,” Mooney told The Times. “But I’m a lawyer. I’ve advised the board and superintendent that there are some problems.”

Mooney said his office told the district that the parents’ complaint had some validity and that some training manuals, which parents said issued illegal directives to staff, were of concern. Yet Falcone appeared to ignore his attorneys when he issued a 2,200-word statement claiming the district’s efforts were legal, and the changes being made were to provide more “efficient service delivery.”

Hagerty-Ross issued a statement in which she expressed concern that the allegations were made, instead of focusing on the actual allegations.

The “administration strongly objects to the mischaracterizations of district practices in the complaint, and both the administration and the Board [of Ed] look forward to any such hearing so that we may set the record straight,” she stated.

Since that time, however, more evidence has surfaced that appears to support the parents’ claims. Gerri Fleming, a former history teacher turned special ed advocate based out of Norwalk, told The Times that the PowerPoint presentation developed by Osypuk is “replete with legal errors, so if this is providing the underpinnings of their understanding… then it is problematic.”

Attorney Andrew Feinstein is representing parents for their complaint, and pointed out more problems in a guideline manual for recognizing hyperactivity in a child. He also cited problems in a presentation Osypuk made that gives staff canned answers for questions posed by parents.

Mooney appeared somewhat contrite on behalf of the schools when asked about the additional documents.

“Frankly, I think you know it’s a natural reaction not to be admitting things and to be a little defensive,” Mooney said. “I would have to say that all of us had an evolving understanding of just what the situation was.”

Mooney, however, remained confident that children were not falling behind because of school policies. If children fall behind, he added, parents have the right to discuss changing their child’s education plan, or file for a mediation or due process hearing.

“We haven’t seen any evidence that there was any intention to be prescriptive,” he added.

Cover-up?

The schools’ actions also beg the question about whether Falcone or Osypuk intentionally omitted documents from a Freedom of Information request posed by parents earlier this year. Parents had asked for all policy and training manuals disseminated since September of 2012, but none of the documents that have surfaced since the complaint was filed were included in the schools’ response to the parents’ inquiry.

In short, virtually everything the parents were looking for were not given to them. Falcone apologized for the omission of the first document that was later leaked to parents, stating it was an “oversight.” But a review of emails obtained by The Times via a records request showed an additional number of documents may also have been omitted. A review of the documents sent to the state by the schools shows that even more documents might have been left out.

Mooney said he sees no evidence of a cover-up.

“I’m just not buying the premise that it was an intentional cover-up,” Mooney said.

Falcone said he hadn’t seen the first document that was leaked to parents, yet also said it was “widely distributed.” Mooney said Falcone would have asked Osypuk to give him all the materials parents requested, since Osypuk created the documents parents sought. It appears that Osypuk omitted the materials, yet Mooney remained confident that it was an “oversight” and not an attempt to obstruct.

“There would… be no advantage to withholding the materials,” he said.

When asked if a possible motive for Osypuk would be to keep her job if she knew the materials might be troublesome, Mooney maintained his position.

“The training materials were created — when they were created, there was no evidence that there was any insight that these training materials crossed the line into overly prescriptive guidance,” Mooney said. “There’s really no consciousness of guilt. In good faith these materials were prepared.”

“I don’t know if they would recognize on first instance that they were problematic,” he added.

Parents, however, beg to differ. Some have pointed out that the schools have been under fire after some recent employees were forced to resign after legal issues surfaced, leaving the schools leery about admitting Osypuk’s culpability and allowing another story of a “bad apple hire” to surface. Others say the omissions are indicative of a school district that has shut down clear communication channels in multiple aspects of its governance.

Consequences?

Kathleen Casparino, owner of Connecticut Education Advisers, an advocacy group, has worked with Darien parents of special needs kids for more than a decade. She sits in on planning and placement team meetings, or PPTs, which consist of the parents, administrators, teachers and other special ed professionals. The teams decide as a unit on what kind of education a certain child should receive.

Casparino said her Darien clientele has doubled since Osypuk took over.

“The [documents] that have surfaced have explained the changes in tone of PPT meetings,” Casparino told The Times. “The majority of staff were not participating. When I asked questions, staff would look very uncomfortable. Even before this came out, it was clear something was strange.”

Mooney said he sees no evidence that the suggestions in the training manuals have been implemented or that any child’s education has suffered as a result. Casparino, however, said the complaint could just be the tip of the iceberg.

“There are a lot of parents out there who might have a vague sense that their child isn’t making progress,” she said. “They might not know how to frame questions in a meeting… Even if they’re asking questions, they don’t know how to ask for evidence of that progress in a meaningful form. It takes along time to learn how to do that.”

When asked if she worried that some children might not be getting an appropriate education, Casparino said, “I do worry.”

“There certainly is a window of opportunity for learning to read, so I worry if they’re not receiving an appropriate instruction that the gap will widen and become even more difficult to address,” she said.

Once problems set in, an avalanche of other issues could snowball onto the child.

“That’s the education piece of it,” Casparino said. “Then there’s the emotional damage that’s done to that child’s self-esteem and self-concept. It’s devastating to these children to go into a class every day, knowing they are going to fail. It’s absolutely devastating. Often that results in behavior problems that mask the underlying learning issue.”

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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