The six figure education that didn’t exist

Emma Wyman knew she needed to do something when her daughter came home from school one day with scrapes on her face.

Her daughter’s behavior had also started to change. She was receiving special education services for a specific cognitive disability and was attending a private school in Connecticut. Darien Schools paid for the services.

At one time she was excited about learning, and was eager to express her creativity and share her newly gained skills when she came home. But that started to change when she transitioned from middle school to the high school wing of the private institution. She began to detach from learning, and her communication abilities suffered, preventing her from expressing what was really wrong.

Wyman, which is not her real name, as she believes her daughter would suffer from community ridicule if she revealed her identity, decided to act.

It was in January of 2009 when she came home with the scrapes. The school told her she did not get them there, and blamed Wyman, she said. She called for a planning and placement team meeting, or PPT, to tell Darien Schools — the financier — that her daughter would no longer attend the school because she believed her daughter sustained her injuries there.

“I gave them eight months notice” to find a better program or school, she said.

Wyman’s daughter had attended Darien Schools, but problems with in-district services saw Wyman seeking an outplacement. But the outplacement didn’t work, either, despite a promising beginning at the middle school. High school started the downward spiral, Wyman said.

Her daughter’s psychotherapist told The Darien Times that if Wyman’s daughter could do today what she did when she was 13, “I’d be doing cartwheels” out of sheer excitement. She’s now 24 years old.

Public schools are required by law to offer a free, appropriate public education, or FAPE. If a school cannot provide those services in-house, the district must pay for those services to be obtained elsewhere.

But this private high school wasn’t working either, according to Wyman. Her daughter’s regression, behavior change, facial scrapes and lack of school accountability for the injuries were too much for Wyman.

She preferred this newspaper not print the name of the private school to prevent identification of her child.

Wyman appealed to the state Office of Protection and Advocacy for Persons with Disabilities because her daughter was over 18 when she sustained the abrasions. The agency did not investigate, Wyman said, and would not share with her the school’s version of the events.

She decided to find a program for her daughter on her own. She found schools in Stratford and New York City that seemed appropriate, yet she claims Darien Schools were not interested in sending her daughter to these places.

“They told me she’s not going there,” Wyman recalled. When she asked what the schools’ rationale was, she said she was told “they don’t have to send her there.”

Her daughter stayed at the private school until June 2009 — five more months of being in a school she didn’t like, primarily because she had no other options. During the first eight months of 2009, Wyman called several PPT meetings to see where the schools were with an alternative program, and there was nothing. They also refused to consider Wyman’s suggestions, she said.

The new school year was starting, and Darien still had her daughter enrolled in the private school that Wyman said was not serving her daughter appropriately.

On the first day of school, Darien sent a school bus to her house to pick up her daughter. The bus sat in her driveway, idling, for about 20 minutes, Wyman said, before leaving with no passenger.

The next day the same thing happened. Every day for an entire year. Wyman complained, but the buses persisted. The exhaust filled her home and enraged her dogs, so she began parking her car at the end of the driveway to keep them away. The buses then idled at the end of her driveway, she said.

Spending money

Bills obtained via Freedom of Information requests show that First Student was charging Darien $337.88 per visit to Wyman’s house. In one month, the transportation bills approached $7,000. Tuition at the school was $5,500 a month, or about $55,000 for the year.

Over 10 months, Darien spent about $110,000 on an education that did not exist, according to records.

This figure does not take into account legal expenses spent on disagreements between Wyman and the district on her daughter’s education. The month after Wyman said she wanted a new school for her daughter — February of 2009 — the schools dropped more than $18,000 on legal fees related to only her daughter.

Wyman estimated she spent about $10,000 in legal fees during the entire four years she dealt with Darien.

The schools appeared determined to keep Wyman’s daughter at the private school. They eventually took Wyman to due process, which is similar to a civil suit, claiming this school was adequate and Wyman’s request was inappropriate.

In December 2009, the schools spent more than $52,000 fighting Wyman, who mostly represented herself.

Including legal fees, tuition and transportation, Darien spent more than $286,000 in a single year on Wyman’s daughter alone.

That’s roughly equal to the salaries of six first-year teachers, or the tuition for five or six years at most private schools for a single student.

This figure does not take into account the thousands spent on evaluations that Wyman said never took place. Nor does it account for the hundreds spent on shipping her documents, as the schools chose to send items to Wyman via FedEx, records show.

Wyman said every time she asked for a copy of a document, including a copy of her daughter’s education plan, or IEP, “it went to the lawyers.” Her legal bills appear to support her claim, with hundreds of itemized charges during 2009.

The only education her daughter received during the 2009-10 school year was 15 hours a week from a private tutor that Darien paid for. This was an additional $27,000 in services, according to her own records.

Her daughter never once took the bus to the private school, despite the bus arriving to her home daily and idling in the family’s driveway.

Wyman said the tutor service would have accompanied the private school curriculum anyway, so it wasn’t as if she was getting special treatment. She was getting below the bare minimum, she said.

Conflict

She couldn’t send her child to another school because she did not have the money to pay for it herself. Once the schools took her into due process, that’s when things got interesting, she said.

Before the due process hearing began, the hearing officer was laughing with the school district’s lawyer, talking about children and vacation, Wyman said.

“It was clear they knew each other,” she remembered.

The hearing officer is intended to be an impartial third party that hears all sides and makes a decision based on fact-finding within the law. But it was clear there was no intention to hear Wyman’s side, she said.

When Wyman tried to present evidence, she said she was cut off during her presentation. When she tried to bring in evidence that the schools — then under special ed Director Robin Pavia and Superintendent Don Fiftal — had reneged on an offer to provide her daughter with a program that Wyman had agreed was appropriate, she wasn’t allowed to show that evidence either, she claimed.

When she complained to the state about the hearing officer’s lack of impartiality, she said her concerns were met with deaf ears.

“They told me if I don’t like the outcome, I can file a federal complaint,” she said.

All this happened in 2009.

Meanwhile, her daughter’s education continued to regress. She exited Darien Schools in June of 2010, having turned 21. Since that time, her daughter walks around with her head down, having lost all confidence in herself and her abilities, Wyman said.

Then Wyman’s integrity as a mother was challenged. The schools contacted the state Department of Children and Families, claiming Wyman was an unfit mother by keeping her daughter from going to school, according to Wyman’s records provided to The Times.

The department did not sustain the complaint. Instead, it responded by saying that Darien could do a better job at working with parents and understanding their needs, records indicated.

“It was a devastating life experience,” Wyman said.

Schools Superintendent Steve Falcone did not respond to requests for comment. Falcone was assistant superintendent at that time, and his name appeared throughout the legal bills that showed Darien’s expenses on Wyman’s case.

Systemic?

Concerns with special education in Darien reached a boiling point in March this year, when 25 parents filed an unprecedented complaint with the state Department of Education, claiming Darien was making decisions about children’s special education plans, or IEPs, without parental input. The complaint also alleges that services were denied and cut without parental consent.

In April this year, the schools spent roughly $40,000 defending itself against the complaint.

Special ed Director Deirdre Osypuk was placed on paid administrative leave, however, some parents said that she was merely a scapegoat, and that a systemic problem lurks in Darien, one that runs all the way to the top and perhaps even to the state level.

Wyman said the concept of IEPs being changed without parental consent is nothing new.

“There was that experience for me as well,” she said. “You get tired as a parent. You can write a letter saying you disagree with [PPT] minutes, but you get tired. I’ve been dealing with the public schools since she was 3.”

Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Education chairman, demanded an investigation of the entire administration as “gut-wrenching” stories came out during the state’s investigation. Hagerty-Ross ordered the probe a few days after Osypuk’s departure, which coincided with superintendent Falcone’s declaration that he would do his own investigation.

Some said the school board has had plenty of time to act, but has not until now chosen to do anything. Concerns about violations to federal law were brought to the Board of Ed’s attention in January, according to time-stamped emails provided by parents. Some have said that the board’s attorneys, Shipman & Goodwin, advised the schools to not meet with parents to avoid liability.

The school board authorized Shipman & Goodwin to work with the state to find an independent investigator, but many have expressed concern that neither the state nor the law firm are in a position to find an objective person to perform the task.

According to legal bills provided to The Times via a Freedom of Information request, Shipman & Goodwin examines a large number of special education-related items, including training materials and other documents — the same types of information being used as evidence in the complaint against the schools. If an investigation found evidence of illegal wrongdoing, the law firm could be held accountable for having not caught the problems before they were implemented.

The state also has little incentive to dig at the problem, some said, because the state risks federal consequences if Darien is out of compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. Others worry that the state’s closeness with districts prevents it from being entirely objective.

State officials have not responded to requests for comment, and instead have provided The Times with general statements. Four Freedom of Information requests have been filed with the state, and none have been returned to The Times. Some would require several months to complete, but at least one was due within 30 days, a time frame that has since expired.

Kelly Donnelly, director of communications for the state education department, did not respond to requests for comment. Michael Tavernier, the lead state investigator on Darien’s case, has also not responded.

At the state’s meeting with more than 100 Darien parents, Tavernier told The Times the meeting would not take place with press present, despite protests from parents who wished for media to stay. Tavernier said it was for parents only. However, at least three others were in the audience who had no children in Darien Schools.

On the other side of the coin, some parents noted the reputation Darien had for many years as a place where special needs children could get whatever services they needed, at whatever cost. If parents were unhappy, all they needed to do was complain and they got what they wanted, some said.

Wyman sees it a bit differently.

“For a long time in Darien, being seen as disabled in public was unacceptable,” she said. The schools “would just say, ‘Where do you want to go? We’ll pay for it’. And that was that.”

The validity of this claim is difficult to verify, as Darien Schools have not commented on individual cases, citing legal privacy issues. This was also three special ed administrators ago, Wyman remembered.

For others, the special ed problems are embedded in a culture that starts at the state Department of Education, and trickles down to the individual districts.

Court records show that the schools are also embroiled in a lawsuit that claims a child with Down syndrome was assaulted and demeaned by Darien Schools staff, one of whom was Robin Pavia’s nephew. The incidents are alleged to have occurred under Pavia’s tenure.

The psychotherapist who treated Wyman’s daughter said every time she attended a meeting with Wyman and her daughter and school officials to work on the girl’s education plan, she was met with more than just hostility.

“I could hear them down the hall laughing and being jovial,” she recalled. “When I walked in the room, it all went silent.”

“The cards are stacked against us from the beginning,” she said.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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