Communication problems run deeper than special ed

Transparency, accountability, and clear communication. These are things that Darien Schools administration and the Board of Education have publicly said they need to improve upon.

But, according to some parents, and to dealings between this newspaper and the district and Board of Ed, and district messages to the town and media, clear communication remains a problem.

The announcement that special education Director Deirdre Osypuk was placed on paid leave was not sent to parents. It was sent to media only. No message was put on the district’s website.

Schools lawyer Tom Mooney said that he couldn’t recall ever advising a district to announce a personnel decision publicly.

The district, however, routinely announces new hires and occasional retirements on its website and in email blasts.

On Wednesday, the district started school 90-minutes late as police searched for a man who was reportedly wielding a gun. Superintendent Steve Falcone said “there was a fugitive at large in the town,” in the email blast to parents which was the cause for the delay.

The man, however, was not a convicted or accused criminal who had escaped from police custody. In a release, police referred to the man as a “subject.” Falcone said the decision to start late was made at 7:25 a.m., but text messages weren’t sent out until after 8 a.m. The Darien Times didn’t get an email wasn’t sent until 9:40 a.m.

In April, two men wandered into Middlesex Middle School with no school identification, and were later arrested and accused of trying to sell marijuana to children in the parking lot.

No parents were informed of this incident via district communication channels. Some parents read about the incident in this newspaper and others were recently informed when their children told them.

Kathryn Doran, a parent with children at Middlesex Middle School, said she recently heard her kids talking about the incident, which is how she learned about it.

“What are you doing with my kids?” Doran wondered. “Our hope is that the town selectmen get together with the head of the chief of police and the schools and come up with a better plan. I think they owe that to the town in this environment.”

There was also a power outage at Royle School earlier this year while the children were doing a lock-down drill. Parents told The Darien Times that they didn’t know about the lock-down or the power outage.

Doran said her communication from Hindley School has always been excellent, but not from the district, adding that she normally finds out district news via social media, such as Twitter.

The special education complaint has highlighted these communication problems, some have said, as the district has allegedly committed numerous Freedom of Information violations, disseminated cryptic emails and only informed certain parents about a meeting with state investigators when they were told to invite all parents of special needs children.

The district also did not inform parents via email that it had finalized its contract with consultant Theresa DeFrancis, who is being paid $140 per hour, and $70 per hour of travel time, to help the district improve its special ed policies and procedures — duties that are normally the responsibility of the special education director.

Darien’s director Osypuk was recently put on paid administrative leave, but the district stated her leave was “without prejudice” to indicate she would keep getting paid, which schools lawyer Tom Mooney said should have been clear.

The district also didn’t inform parents of the leave, which Mooney said would have been “unusual” if they had.

Board of Ed Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross has not responded to repeated attempts for comment via text messages, emails and voice mails, over the last three months. Mooney declined to comment on whether he had advised Hagerty-Ross not to speak to the press.

Communication woes continue, even as the schools have access to public relations professional Duby McDowell, a former TV reporter who is assisting the schools with communications.

Mother Lynne Andren, who has children in special education and is a member of the Special Education Advisory Committee, said the communication problems run deep and are reflective of the need for change.

“From the beginning of the year, the administration’s mantra was communication, collaboration and transparency,” Andren told The Times. “After being at last Monday’s meeting [with state investigators], it does not appear that any of those things were followed through.”

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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