Inside ‘illegal’ school team meetings

Clerical errors.

That’s the reason given to scores of parents who allege that special education administrators, under the oversight of Director Deirdre Osypuk, implemented unauthorized changes to their children’s individualized education plans, or IEPs.

Many parents said they thought they were alone, and believed administrators when they were told the errors were inadvertent. But as parents of special needs children began to network and meet each other, particularly through the SPEDucated Parents group, it became clear that these “clerical errors” were systemic, they said.

Parents are legally entitled to be involved in planning and placement team meetings, or PPTs. These meetings are aimed at developing children’s IEPs, but parents claim changes have been made without their input, and when they asked found out about them and asked why, they were told it was a clerical error.

One mother said her child is “losing time” as the district continues to fail to implement programs developed by outside evaluators.

“We’re supplementing, but it’s not enough,” she said.

Another mother said she was sent an email that explicitly showed Osypuk seeking to minimize her son’s eligibility for special ed services.

After a recent meeting between parents and state investigators, Katrina O’Connor, a mother and signer of a complaint against the schools, which claims the schools are determining children’s special education plans without parental input, said she was “shocked” to see the number of parents of preschool children who claimed their kids were also denied services.

The town’s preschool early learning program, or ELP, is held at Tokeneke and Hindley schools for 3 to 4 year olds.

“These are the most vulnerable children, because they can’t speak up for themselves,” O’Connor said.

Parents at the meeting said those who spoke about ELP concerns didn’t know there was a problem with their children’s education until they attended their PPTs.

A father said he was told numerous times that a PPT was scheduled for the day after he was notified. He told the district several times in one day that he couldn’t make it.

Then, he said, the district held the PPT without him, and sent him their education plan that did not include his input.

He filed a complaint with the state, as parents are entitled by federal law to three PPT date options. He then said the state called him five times over the next few days, asking him, “What can we do to make this complaint go away?”

Another parent said she withdrew a similar state complaint, but has since regretted her decision to not continue with her claim.

Parents are also worried about extended school year services, or ESY, which are given to special ed kids who show the need for additional help after the school year ends. The number of children slated to get this service dropped by 58% so far this year from last year. (Click here to view a chart showing year-to-year ESY numbers)

A school source indicated that last year, 98% of the children who got ESY services had been approved by May 1. This year, by the same date, only 50 children had been approved. Since May 1, 60 additional students have been found eligible for ESY, but this happened after concerns about the numbers were made public. Parents have also made previous attempts to alert the district of their ESY worries, but their concerns were minimized, they said.

Parents said this is one example of Osypuk and Superintendent Steve Falcone ignoring their pleas for transparency and accountability as the administration waited longer than usual to determine if a child is eligible for summer school.

“We came to them in October to talk about ESY,” said parent Kit Savage. “We were given nothing.”

The advisory committee again expressed concerns in December, but still the administration held their ground, parents said.

Another parent said teachers have been silent during PPT meetings, and in some cases, they cried.

“Teachers feel hamstrung,” she said. “They can’t come forward. They’re giving us scripted answers. It’s appalling.”

Osypuk developed a presentation that offered canned answers to numerous potential questions to be posed by parents. Schools attorney Tom Mooney said it’s not unusual for a special education administrator to develop training materials that guide staff.

“For a special education director to direct her staff — that’s her job,” Mooney said.

“Parents have expansive rights under the special education statute,” he added. “It’s our belief that, not withstanding deficiencies in training materials, the vast majority of parents in Darien are pleased with excellent services that they get.”

“There’s no evidence any improper IEP effects were made,” Mooney said.

Parents, however, brought hundreds of pages of documents to state investigators, showing them examples of what they claim were illegally created IEPs.

State investigators deferred comment to their communication department. Kelly Donnelly, state spokesman, provided a general statement to The Times, but did not answer questions about whether the state intends to examine IEPs.

The investigators agenda included two hours of “student file reviews,” but it’s unclear whether they had access to the schools’ computer system to see files, or whether the school prepared documents for them.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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