Silence broken: Former admin says Falcone not the culprit

The somber aftermath following the resignation of Darien’s school superintendent has brought the former director of special education forward to address her concerns over the need to root out the architects behind last year’s illegal special education program.

In an exclusive interview with The Darien Times, Robin Pavia, former special ed director, said that former Superintendent Steve Falcone was not to blame for the myriad problems that plagued special ed last year, which included allegations of staff restricting, removing or denying services to children with special needs without parental consent.

“I believe strongly that Steve was extremely ill served, at every point in the process, over the past year and a half, by the senior administration, who in my opinion, were advising him based on their own personal agendas pertaining to special education,” Pavia said.

Illegal activity was confirmed by two state Department of Education reports and  spurned a hiring spree by the Board of Education to fix the problems. After several years of budget overages in special education spending, pressure came from the Board of Finance to rein in expenses. Some say the problems came from a focus on money instead of education.

“There was a mindset in the central office that cutting costs was a priority and that the law was simply an inconvenience, and a matter of personal interpretation,” Pavia continued.

Many of the costs were attributed to children being placed in other schools at public expense. Finance board Chairman Liz Mao said that parents had been placing children in other schools and that Darien was paying the bills to avoid litigation against parents. Andrew Feinstein, an attorney who has represented parents throughout the special education debacle, disagreed, saying parents out-place because “Darien provides a lousy education to children with disabilities.”

Deirdre Osypuk was hired to replace Pavia. Trained as a psychologist, Osypuk noted in her employment application the need to cut services to maintain a 0% budget increase, which has been the demand placed on many school districts.

Osypuk remains on paid leave, where she has been since mid-June, having received a 1.7% raise on July 1. Falcone resigned on Oct. 22, just a week before a comprehensive special ed investigation is scheduled to be completed, and two weeks before a contested Board of Education election. The Board of Ed discussed Falcone’s performance for four hours the evening before Falcone sent a letter to district staff announcing his resignation.

According to Pavia, the problem appears to lie with Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent of elementary education. During Pavia’s tenure, she said there was much “friction” between herself and Pandolfo over the same items that were mentioned in a November memo that Osypuk wrote to her staff. The state determined the memo illegally restricted access to adapted physical education and extended school year services — areas of contention between Pavia and Pandolfo, according to Pavia.

The memo stated adapted P.E., which is a less strenuous and more individualized form of P.E, “should rarely be considered for any student who does not qualify” for physical therapy. However, a student’s psychomotor abilities are not the only criteria that schools should consider for this service, according to a report in the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, the entity Connecticut uses to outline eligibility criteria for adaptive P.E.

At “least two forms of measurement should be used,” the association states. “The team must take behavior, sensory needs, socialization skills, ability to perform with the class and individualized goals — as well as parent preferences — into consideration when making decisions regarding placement and providing services.”

In the state’s report, it told Darien to revise its eligibility criteria for adapted P.E. because it violated the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act, or IDEA, which requires services to be determined on an individual basis. Pandolfo also tried to create boilerplate programs for services, Pavia said, which could mean that the legal right to an individualized education was minimized by Pandolfo’s attempts.

At one point during Pavia’s last years with the district, Pandolfo suggested creating a committee to review eligibility criteria for adapted P.E., but that neither Pavia nor her two assistant directors would serve on the committee, Pavia said. Pavia recommended her other assistant director, Carleen Wood, take her place as director, but the district chose Osypuk instead.

A former special education professional with close knowledge of the situation said that Pandolfo did not want Wood as director. Pandolfo has not immediately responded to requests for comment.

Laura Conte, assistant special ed director for elementary, left the district when Pavia retired. The district chose Liz Wesolowski to replace Conte. Wesolowski’s first job out of college was as a special ed teacher at Ox Ridge School in 2005, according to her résumé. She was promoted to district program integration coordinator in 2010 — a position where she worked district wide to educate staff on what’s called scientific research-based interventions, or SRBI. She is now assistant special ed director.

This intervention is used for children who begin to fall behind in a regular education setting, and is intended to help discover children with disabilities earlier or provide some additional help without the need to provide intensive special ed services. However, critics claim SRBI is more often used to defer and deny services to children with special needs. This delay can save districts money by postponing evaluations that show if a child requires special education, and by also saving costs that come with an individualized education program, or IEP.

SRBI was specifically included as an area of interest in the survey developed by Sue Gamm, the Chicago attorney who was hired by the Board of Ed to examine all areas of special ed to determine the depth of its problems. Gamm asked parents to describe their experience with SRBI and if it was used to delay services.

Antoinette Fornshell, the former district literacy coordinator, was responsible for much of the implementation of SRBI in Darien Schools. On the day Falcone resigned, the board also accepted Fornshell’s resignation. She left her $105,000 a year job in Darien for a $142,000 position with Greenwich Public Schools.

Kathleen Casparino, owner of Connecticut Education Advisers, said delaying education to children can cause permanent damage.

“There certainly is a window of opportunity for learning to read, so I worry if they’re not receiving an appropriate instruction that the gap will widen and become even more difficult to address,” she said.

Once problems set in, an avalanche of other issues could snowball onto the child.

“That’s the education piece of it,” Casparino said. “Then there’s the emotional damage that’s done to that child’s self-esteem and self-concept. It’s devastating to these children to go into a class every day, knowing they are going to fail. It’s absolutely devastating. Often that results in behavior problems that mask the underlying learning issue.”

Although Falcone resigned, Board of Ed Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross said at a meeting that the “board has concluded that new leadership is required.” She then described an email that was sent to Falcone in September of 2012 by “a respected staff member, outlining numerous concerns” about the district’s special education program. Falcone did not share these concerns with the school board, an approached the board disagreed with, according to Hagerty-Ross.

It’s unclear why, if Falcone resigned, the school board chose to note failures in his leadership in its public address.

“This is a very sad time for Darien,” Pavia told The Times. “I believe that Steve Falcone is an honorable man of integrity. He truly cares about the students in Darien and would never have intentionally acted in a way that would harm a student.”

However, many said that Falcone knew about the problems long before they surfaced in the complaint filed with the state Department of Education. Falcone also omitted key documents from Freedom of Information requests, and later apologized for the omissions.

Pavia remained confident that Falcone’s mistakes were not the primary cause of the district’s errors.

“I believe that Steve’s warmth, humanity and commitment to young people will be missed in Darien,” she said.

For Pavia, the district still has personnel changes to make before the district can heal.

“Internal cleanup should not stop with Steve Falcone,” she continued.

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