A review of thousands of public documents from over the last year by parents and this newspaper has revealed further background, history and possible trust violations regarding special ed practices and concerns, parents told The Darien Times this week.
One issue raised by parents is that Board of Education member Morgan Whittier reported to Superintendent Steve Falcone and board Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross on a meeting he had with parents of special needs children — a meeting that parents said was intended to be private.
Also, Jamie McLaughlin, Board of Finance member, discussed the need for “greater management” during the placement process of a child in special education — a process that is intended by federal law to be collaborative and involve parents.
In light of the complaint filed against the schools, which claims services have been illegally cut or denied to children in special education, some parents said these actions are reflective of the core problems — education policies that are primarily finance-driven and a Board of Ed that is more concerned with supporting the administration than serving the best interests of students, parents and constituents.
Additionally, an examination of emails shows the special education administration citing the need to control the “floodgates” of services that Darien children received under former special education Director Robin Pavia.
New Director Deirdre Osypuk was put on paid administrative leave recently as the district began its own investigation into allegations that she illegally altered the individualized education plans, or IEPs, of dozens of children in special ed without parental consent. When caught, parents said administrators cited “clerical errors” as the reason for the changes, but parents also say that Osypuk and her staff were operating under direction from the administration and that she has become a scapegoat.
These instances, some said, point to the need for sweeping changes in the school district and Board of Ed, and a reexamination of how the Board of Finance influences school board decisions.
Kit Savage, a parent and signer of the complaint against the schools, said the entire town’s education system has been put in a precarious position by the revelation of these documents.
“There is a reason the governing of the town has both a [Board of Ed] and a separate body of a” Board of Finance, Savage told The Darien Times. “Checks and balances… Why are they separate? To protect the interests of the students and not let finance drive decisions.”
In finance board member McLaughlin’s email, he tells other board members about a private meeting he had with Falcone and Osypuk.
“I scheduled a visit in the dead of summer with Dr. Falcone” to discuss special education, McLaughlin wrote. “My ostensible purpose was simply to listen to his vision and begin to build a better brief on the topic, generally.”
McLaughlin was asked what he meant by “ostensible purpose,” and if there were other reasons he met with Falcone and Osypuk that were not apparent to the school administrators.
In an interview, he said his sole purpose of the meeting was to build his “personal brief on special education, which is very complicated.”
McLaughlin had only been on the board for about a year, and was trying to understand the rising special ed costs and management of expenses, he said.
“Any other conclusion, or reading in that email, without the context I gave you, is specious, and not based on anything other than supposition,” McLaughlin told The Times.
In his email, he writes: “I left impressed that there will be greater management at various performance levels, most notably the critical PPT process.” The PPT, or planning and placement team, is a meeting of parents, teachers, administrators and others who gather to determine a child’s education plan, or IEP.
This meeting is supposed to be collaborative and any increased management of it, parents said, implies increased district control. This, in turn, parents said, appears to support allegations that Osypuk’s “united front” comment in her memo to staff was an actual directive and not a bad choice of words, as Falcone has claimed.
“We agreed there also has to be a cultural shift at the level of the school professionals that the need of the student must be balanced against decisions that fulfill the law, but that are also financially prudent,” McLaughlin wrote.
Liz Mao, finance board chairman, said her board “has had no involvement whatsoever in guiding Board of Education decisions.”
She also said McLaughlin’s email was being taken out of context, and declined to comment further.
Parents also expressed concern that Board of Ed member Whittier broke their trust by reporting to the district on a meeting that parents thought was private.
Whittier told The Times that he attended the meeting as a parent, and not a Board of Ed member, but was asked by some in attendance to look into some of the issues raised. The meeting was held by SPEDudcated Parents last fall, a group co-founded by Savage and Molly Van Wagenen to help parents navigate the complex web of special education.
“I attended the meeting as a parent to learn more about what their goals were, what are they looking to do,” Whittier told The Times. “I was hoping that their goal was to educate other parents on the special ed process.”
Savage, however, pointed to elements in Whittier’s emails that show he could have had an ulterior motive for attending — a claim Whittier denied.
“In the letter, he identifies that the group wanted the information discussed to remain confidential,” Savage said. “He is actually in the process of breaking that confidentiality as he writes about it.”
Whittier sent the email to Falcone and Hagerty-Ross, but parents said they did not know he was going to do that.
In one part of the email, parents say Whittier possibly “outs” sources within the district who had expressed to parents their dissatisfaction with the new special education administration, by identifying those sources as reassigned staff.
These staff members had been reassigned, and parents lamented this detail could be enough for the schools to deduce who these staff members were, which could leave them susceptible to retaliation. Whittier denied he outed anyone, saying he didn’t know these teachers’ names.
“I do not believe ‘outing’ is the appropriate term as the alleged retaliation had already occurred,” Whittier stated in an email.
The notion of retaliation, parents argue, goes beyond possibly hurting children’s education, which has been claimed, and also involves teachers being reassigned or not provided adequate substitution options when teachers call out sick, among other allegations. This happens, some parents say, whenever people disagree or speak out against district policies.
Whittier does, however, advocate on behalf of the parents in his email, drawing attention to the lack of parental involvement in the choice to hire director Osypuk. He also noted that several parents waited longer than the federal law allows to get their children’s IEPs, and asked Falcone to look into that.
“I have to believe there is validity to this concern as so many parents made similar claims,” Whittier wrote.
Another parent found the email’s contents not alarming, but added that it would be “inappropriate” for Whittier to send any email under the circumstances, since he had been there as a parent and not a Board of Ed member.
Several parents claim that Whittier has acted as a “mole” the entire time, reporting SPEDucated meetings to Falcone and Hagerty-Ross, a claim Whittier vehemently denied. Whittier said he has worked side-by-side with parents during this situation and there is no reason to believe he has any other motive other than what’s best for special ed children.
In the email, Whittier also said that he advised SPEDucated to invite school administrators to their meeting to “have broad special ed issues heard,” and noted how alarmed parents were when Whittier said administrators would be happy to attend.
“Once again, the alarmist few tend to misrepresent the transparency of the district and its administration,” he wrote.
Parent Savage said Whittier broke the trust of parents who had thought he was on their side.
“In the memo Whittier reports back to Falcone and Hagerty-Ross on information parents didn’t even give him, such as whether they had been to due process, and calls members ‘alarmist’ for not trusting in the transparency of administration and district,” Savage said.
Parents also worried that Whittier, who attended the state investigator’s meeting with more than 100 parents, reported back to the district what happened, leaving parents open to possible retaliation.
Whittier said he couldn’t recall “any further discussions of any kind regarding this group” with the administration, and denied he’s been wearing two hats during his work with SPEDucated and other parents.
“My actions, including this email you refer to, and my participation/support of [SPEDucated’s] initial mission, bely any such allegations of subversive behavior on my part,” Whittier stated. “I thought the issue is children and getting them the services and the appropriate education they are entitled to. That is my only ‘ulterior’… motive. Any other perceptions are misguided.”
Canary in the mine
The district now faces an unprecedented investigation that is drawing divisive reaction from residents. Some parents, however, remain convinced that evidence of illegal activity has existed for almost a year, and the district has waited too long to take action.
Parents addressed problems early in Osypuk’s tenure — problems with IEPs being altered without parental consent, parents claim. Julie Bookbinder, the former head of the speech and language pathology program, is rumored to have left the district because of Osypuk. Bookbinder has declined to comment. Others left the district also, and some told parents they left because of the direction the district took under Osypuk.
Another telling detail was also revealed in Whittier’s email, parents said — that problems have been on the Board of Ed’s radar, as well as the administration’s, since at least November. Parents said they’ve brought up concerns since October. Since no investigations or genuine mitigation efforts have been done until recently, parents said, it further discredits the Board of Ed’s ability to oversee the administration, and Falcone’s ability to manage personnel or participate in the internal investigation that’s been publicized since Osypuk was put on leave.
Tom Mooney, schools attorney, declined to comment on Whittier’s email, saying he was unaware of its existence. However, his firm, Shipman & Goodwin, examined all Board of Ed emails requested through the Freedom of Information Act, according to an email from Falcone.
Board chairman Hagerty-Ross has not responded to repeated attempts to comment, nor has she responded to attempts to speak off the record.