It was a baptism, of sorts. As rain poured onto Tokeneke School on Monday, soaking the grounds and leaving a muddy mess all around, fathers and mothers of special needs children created a flood of emotional stories and powerful revelations of what appears to be a deep and systemic problem within the public schools.
Working parents left work early to make the meeting, looking a bit lost — not sure what to expect, not sure where to go, and not sure if anything meaningful would happen. Ambiguity disappeared quickly, after a crowd of more than 100 people showed up to hear stories of services being denied or taken away from kids, sometimes as young as 3 years old.
Despite stories of what some have described as “gut-wrenching,” many parents remain optimistic that the schools will be able to move past this and begin to mend the wounds of distrust that some say will take years to fix.
Molly Van Wagenen, a parent and signer of a complaint against the schools, alleging the schools are determining children’s special education plans without parental input, said the meeting was an eye-opener.
“We knew that the education system in Darien for children with special needs was broken this year, but the depth of that break became even more apparent during this meeting,” Van Wagenen told The Darien Times.
“Now we need to work together as a community to move forward to rebuild systems that will not allow a single administrator, in this case Dr. Deirdre Osypuk, to wield complete control over a child’s educational well-being without being held in check by the balances that should be inherent in any good system,” she continued.
Osypuk took over as director of special education in Darien last year, when Robin Pavia retired. There have been reports that Pavia, who officially retired voluntarily, was actually forced out by an administration that was fed up with rising special ed costs, and that Osypuk was hired to rein in spending.
“This goes far beyond special ed,” Van Wagenen told The Times in an interview. “What has happened in special education has highlighted the weaknesses in general education.”
Kathleen Casparino, owner of Connecticut Educational Advisers, an advocacy group, has worked with Darien parents of special needs kids for more than a decade, and watched her clientele from Darien double since Osypuk took over.
She agreed that the problem is systemic and affects kids in general education classrooms.
“When you have a child who is not receiving appropriate services for six months, that affects the other children in the classroom,” Casparino told The Times, “and he starts acting out, because he’s frustrated and mad and disengaged. That affects everybody in the class. It’s a shame.”
During the meeting, Nancy Prescott, director of Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center, a non-profit group that receives government money to advocate for parents regarding special ed matters, was seen by many in attendance as “aghast” by the stories that came out.
“I hope that by my facial expressions,” Prescott said, “that it was clear, to people who were here, that I got what they were saying.”
Story after story poured from about 25 parents, each with stories more appalling than the other, said those who attended. More would have spoken if there was more time, according to those in attendance. Board of Education members Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Morgan Whittier and Michael Harmon were present for the meeting.
“I thought this was a little battle I was fighting on my own, but now I see there’s a battlefield of parents,” one mother said.
One parent, who has been involved with the complaint filed against the schools since the beginning, said she thought she had “heard it all” until she listened to emotional stories told by fathers holding back tears of services allegedly torn away from kids, and without parental consent.
Rounds of applause could be heard from outside the common room, which has glass walls. Media was not allowed inside, despite protests from parents to allow press to cover the meeting. Michael Tavernier, the lead investigator from the state, made that decision, despite others being present who were not parents of children in Darien Schools, which was Tavernier’s criteria for not allowing press inside.
After the meeting, Tavernier declined to answer questions from press and deferred comments to the communication representative for the state. He also had no business cards to give parents who expressed desire to reach him with concerns.
“We have to buy our own business cards,” he said, citing budget cuts.
Parents, however, appeared grateful to have media present, and thanked The Times for its coverage of the issue.
“So many people are here because they read stories in The Darien Times and saw that they’re not alone,” one parent said.
Some pointed to the sad reality that parents had to get this information from the newspaper. That might not have been the case, however, if, as some parents claim, their attempts to reach out to other parents had not been censured by the administration.
Last fall, parents Kit Savage and Molly Van Wagenen started a support group, SPEDucated Parents, for parents of children in special ed to learn about the complex web of special ed processes. According to sources within the district, Falcone prevented information on the parent group from being disseminated in the elementary school newsletters.
The information was sent once to parents at Royle, but it was since removed. It ran a few times at Holmes but was later removed. Sources indicate they were told by principals, under direction of Falcone, to not include the groups’ information because it wasn’t a “sanctioned school activity and didn’t constitute community news.”
Information on Cub Scouts and YWCA events routinely appear in school newsletters, parents said, leaving them confused as to why their group was omitted. Parents close to the situation claim it is yet one more instance of “abuse of power” by Falcone, who also intentionally left out documents they requested.
“After this evening, I don’t see how the Board of Education can avoid a drastic administrative change from the top down,” said parent Katrina O’Connor after the meeting. “One father claimed an abuse of power in the district. That was clearly evident in statements made here tonight.”
Another parent said she was “shocked over and over again” after listening to stories. “The depth of systemic denial of services is overwhelming.”
A mother noted that all she’s trying to do is have basic services for her child, which she is not getting.
“I don’t mind paying for turf fields or everything else that my child can’t participate in, because I want it to be a whole school environment for all students,” she said.
“We’re not trying to get every single thing for our child,” she continued. “We’re just trying to get a fair and appropriate education… I just want my kid to be able to do regular math, go to college, and get a basic education… There’s been a lot of talk of ‘us versus them.’ But that’s not it at all. I just want [the schools] to do their jobs.”
State investigators did not answer questions, and instead took comments from parents for two hours. Those in attendance expressed mixed feelings on whether the state would take the information given and investigate deeper than what they have said in past communications with schools and parents.
Concerns have arisen by some who fear the state has no incentive to do a thorough investigation, because if Darien is found to be out of compliance with federal law, the state could stop getting money from the federal government for special education.
This would affect more than just Darien, although several lawyers told The Times they don’t recall the federal Department of Education having ever ceased funding to a state for a violation, no matter how egregious the case against the state or district.
Attorney Andrew Feinstein has been helping parents with their case against the schools, and said if the state doesn’t come back with adequate findings, he’s going to seek other options.
“The message should be clear,” Feinstein said. “We want the state to come up and make it very clear that Darien screwed up in a big way, and for the [Board of Ed] to take action to correct it. If that doesn’t happen we’re going to have to do something else that has all sorts of consequences that go far beyond what would be the case if it was handled properly in the first place.”
That includes filing a complaint with the federal government, but, more likely, Feinstein said, filing dozens of due process requests with the state, which could overload the system. Class action lawsuits are a difficult option, he said, as the Second District courts have been reluctant to take on special education cases unless all other avenues have been exhausted.
One father was skeptical of the state’s ability to do anything substantial.
“I think it was a pro forma exercise and I’d be surprised to see if the state has the guts to do anything about it,” he said. “They were making a show of listening, but I don’t think have either the inclination or the power to do anything. I think they themselves will be subject to investigation when this gets to the federal department of education.”
He also said he didn’t want to provide his name because the schools “do in fact retaliate.”
“I have a [retaliation] story but I’m not going to repeat it,” he said. “It’s too specific… I know also there have been teachers who have been retaliated against.”
District lawyer Tom Mooney said that retaliation would not be “appropriate under any circumstances,” but declined to comment on whether he thought it was actually happening in Darien.
“We would absolutely agree that parents have a right to seek review to the state and there should be no adverse consequences for the basis of signing on to that complaint,” Mooney told The Times. “A parent who feels that way has any right [to appeal to the state]. If the state found retaliation that would be a serious matter that the state would address.”
Mooney also said that he doesn’t think any children have been negatively affected by policies that he described as “too prescriptive.” He also said the district’s multiple omissions from Freedom of Information requests were “oversights” and were not an attempt to cover-up what has been alleged as illegal directives.
But testimonies of parents and an examination of school records show that Mooney’s assessment might be incorrect, and that some Darien children may have been harmed as a result of school policies.
“If attorney Mooney had been here and witnessed the emotion, desperation and pain that I witnessed here tonight over and over again as parents came up one after the other with the most disgraceful accounts, I think he just might revise his statements claiming that students were not negatively affected by Dr. Osypuk and her administration’s practices,” said Katrina O’Connor, a member of the Special Education Advisory Committee.
Most people agree that if students don’t get appropriate services, they are in danger of falling behind, creating the potential for behavioral problems and additional services needed to compensate for the education time lost. This means that a child’s education could cost Darien more, when the district has implemented cost saving measure to improve “efficiencies,” according to Falcone.
Money, it seems, appears to be the driving force behind the cuts. To shed light on how money has been spent on things other than educating children, The Times has requested copies of detailed billing invoices for attorneys Shipman & Goodwin and communications consultant Duby McDowell, a former television reporter who is assisting the schools with communication.
Communication, however, remains a core problem with the district. Board Chairman Hagerty-Ross has not responded to repeated attempts for comment made by this newspaper. The schools have also omitted several documents from Freedom of Information requests filed by parents.
Additionally, approximately 700 pages of documents were sent to the state by the schools. Falcone was asked to provide The Times with all documents sent to the state, and gave the paper roughly 100 pages.
At the Special Education Advisory Committee meeting on Thursday, June 6, Falcone said the state had not asked for any documents that included information that would be considered exempt from public disclosure. In a later email to The Times, Falcone said the state asked for additional emails, which would need to be redacted if he provided them. It’s unclear, though, when the state requested additional emails. The Times has made several requests of Falcone for all documents given to the state.
A Freedom of Information request from The Times is pending with the state asking for the same documents.
Another mother said it’s a shame that this situation has gotten to this point, saying the schools should have simply admitted it made mistakes and instituted corrective actions, instead of justifying its policies, which the Board of Ed has also supported.
“I don’t need someone to hold his hand everyday, because that’s not real life,” she said. “I just want him to get a fair and appropriate education.”
Originally published in The Darien Times.