“It was the most difficult job of my career.”
The words of attorney Sue Gamm, said to The Darien Times, speak volumes to the depth of problems that took place in Darien’s special education program last year. If there were any doubts that the 25 parents who signed a complaint with the state Department of Education had been melodramatic with their concerns, it’s likely that Gamm’s summary report could dispel that assumption.
Her findings, which can be found here: DarienTimes.com/tag/state-reports, show that Darien’s special education problems were systemic — that is, they likely affected the delivery of services to most children in special education.
Systemic problems allow for interested parties to file a federal class action lawsuit and bypass the normal procedures established to handle special education problems, according to Steve Wyner, a California attorney. Typically, federal courts require parties to exhaust all avenues before filing a suit, however, this exhaustion clause can be waived if problems are systemic.
“I feel like this is a 30,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, but I didn’t have a picture of it to put that picture together,” Gamm said at the meeting on Monday, Nov. 4 at the high school. “I started to build it from the bottom up.”
Gamm’s report confirmed the state Department of Education’s findings, which were released in two separate reports, but noted that the state’s results actually show Darien was non-compliant in 32 areas, and not 10, as the state reported. The 10 areas noted are connected to other aspects of special ed law, Gamm said, which means the problems were more widespread than the state made them to appear.
The Chicago attorney did not, however, identify how many individualized education plans, or IEPs, were illegally altered. These plans are guaranteed to a child identified as requiring specialized services, and changes are supposed to be made with parental involvement. Gamm found that parents were cut out of the decision-making process, but she did not say how many children or parents were affected.
She did, however, suggest that the district discover this number. The state had placed the onus on parents to learn if their children were affected, but Gamm said that should be the schools’ responsibility.
Gamm also identified additional areas that the state did not address, and examined documents that the state did not request. Among her discoveries, the attorney found that the district developed procedures “designed to deprive or having the effect of depriving students” from being identified as having special needs.
The scientific resource-based intervention program, or SRBI, is a three-tiered system used to provide additional help to students who fall behind their peers in class, and is intended to help identify children with special needs earlier. SRBI was the topic of one of Gamm’s surveys.
Critics contend that SRBI is more often used to delay evaluations for special ed services to prevent its costly implementation. Gamm’s survey found that 77% of parent respondents felt their children should have been referred for an evaluation to receive special ed services during the SRBI process. She also found that 53% of staff did not get information that provided guidelines for implementing SRBI.
Gamm did not receive any data on SRBI from the school district, according to her report. She instead used information sent to her by The Darien Times, which acquired the data via an earlier Freedom of Information Act request.
This data showed that only 1-2% of children entering SRBI were identified as having special needs during a four-year period. It’s unclear how long these children were in SRBI before they were identified. State law limits the amount of time children can be in SRBI, although some parents have said their children remained in the program for multiple school years.
Kathleen Casparino, owner of Connecticut Education Advisors, an advocacy firm, said Darien’s SRBI data was insufficient and showed that a number of students “are left to languish” in SRBI while evaluations for services could be delayed.
“It is unacceptable that the district is not actively tracking how long students stay in” the intervention tiers, Casparino said. If evaluations are delayed, the child could fall behind, which could set them up for behavior problems, Casparino said. These behavior problems can then translate into disturbing the classroom setting, which affects children in regular education.
As part of her recommendations, Gamm emphasized the importance of having a comprehensive SRBI framework to maximize benefits and minimize exploitation.
Gamm also noted that the district did not have a standard operating procedure manual for the special education department.
“In its absence, there was no single document reflecting all of the procedures and processes necessary for the consistent administration and operation of special education,” she wrote. “Instead, there was a series of separate PowerPoint trainings and handouts, and a series of separate documents that collectively contained a myriad of new procedures that were released over several months, and were sometimes contradictory.”
However, former special education Director Robin Pavia told The Times she developed a manual while she was still employed in Darien, but that Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent of elementary special education, prevented it from becoming finalized. Pandolfo has not responded to requests for comment. Gamm also declined to comment.
Tension between Pandolfo and Pavia became public when The Darien Times interviewed Pavia about her final year in Darien, which involved Pandolfo disagreeing with Pavia on items that the state later found to be in violation of special ed law, according to Pavia. Once Director Deirdre Osypuk took over, Pandolfo’s vision for the district appeared to survive over Pavia’s, Pavia said.
Gamm also addressed the history of Darien’s situation, which stems from the 2008 financial crisis that coincided with budget overages in special education. Osypuk told Gamm that she was hired to change the culture.
“…the Board of Education made it very clear to me that ‘things were out of control’ and they wanted change and they wanted it immediately,” Gamm quoted Osypuk as saying. Falcone “made it very clear to me that I was hired to put processes and procedures in place, which I did…”
However, during Gamm’s interviews with Board of Ed members and Falcone, none acknowledged using such language to inform Osypuk of their expectations regarding management of special education, according to Gamm.
Betsy Hagerty-Ross, school board chairman, “in particular, emphatically stated that the school system was ‘never under direction to cut services’.” Gamm appears to have seen things differently.
“I have no doubt that Dr. Osypuk was directed to address the high costs of special education in Darien, and that she had her own perceptions… that the level of services to students exceeded any in her experience,” Gamm wrote.
Public pressure from the Board of Finance to rein in spending was a constant force during budget talks and discussions about over-spending in the special education account since 2008. In a comment post on DarienTimes.com, Board of Finance Chairman Liz Mao noted her board’s concerns were rooted in the concept of special education “crowding out spending” on general education.
Finance members denied to Gamm that their primary goal was to reduce costs.
“Finance board members expressed that they were more concerned with effective management, including the IEP process, and one emailed that he wanted the school district to use better metrics and measures of performance,” Gamm wrote, referencing the individualized education plans, or IEPs, which are provided to all children identified as needing special education.
An examination of thousands of printed email pages by The Darien Times through FOI requests shows that the finance board’s message could easily be misconstrued as a focus on finances. In May of 2012, Mao wrote an email to her fellow board members about the district’s press release announcing Osypuk’s hire.
“Note that nowhere does Dr. Falcone or Mrs. Hagerty-Ross mention that the new hire has a history of managing costs or being a good manager,” Mao wrote. “Missed opportunity?”
In January, finance board member Martha Banks shares with her fellow members her happiness with Osypuk.
“The new special ed director is great,” Banks wrote. “I’m feeling very good about the way [special ed] is now being managed.”
Osypuk was placed on paid administrative leave in June, and received a 1.7% raised on July 1 after signing a new contract.
Gamm noted that it could be easy to interpret some of the Board of Finance’s communications as a focus on finances instead of education policy, which is outside the finance board’s purview anyway.
“It should be noted that unless one is very clear with the message, concerns of high special education costs and expectations for mitigation of increases in special education could reasonably be interpreted as a mandate to reduce services to reach that end,” Gamm wrote.
In surveying Darien personnel, Gamm found they comprised two groups with “widely divergent views,” which further iterates the state’s determination of staff perceptions.
“In one group there are active supporters of Dr. Osypuk’s directives,” Gamm wrote. “They welcomed them as being necessary to change a culture that enabled unreasonable and unnecessary parental demands to flourish.”
“The second group includes personnel that have been critical of and uncomfortable with the directives, and have taken cautious steps to ignore or work around them,” she continued. “Some have sought out a union representative to express concerns about being caught between following the directives and ‘doing the right thing’.”
A February Board of Ed report given by Pandolfo and Osypuk presented evidence that the changes being made should have been red flags for the district, Gamm said.
“The document, which was produced by both Dr. Pandolfo and Dr. Osypuk, has many examples of cost reductions that are conditioned upon changes in student IEP services that had not yet been considered” by planning and placement team meetings, Gamm wrote. “This document, as well as the various training documents and other directives, mirrored this backward process.
“In addition, there is ample information to show that Dr. Osypuk had the expressed support and positive reinforcement of her superiors throughout the school year for the actions she had designed and implemented,” Gamm continued.
Gamm has worked as an administrator for Chicago Public Schools, and was also a division director for the federal Office of Civil Rights. Her career spans more than four decades, and she’s consulted with 50-plus school districts on special education matters, yet what she uncovered in Darien was a situation unlike any other she’d seen.
Officials from the state Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education have not responded to numerous requests for comment.