District mismanagement runs deeper than special ed

A desk audit conducted during the summer by state officials found Darien Schools were out of compliance in 16 areas related to bullying, sexual harassment and gender equality in school sports. These findings have opened up a litany of other management issues going back to 2011, as a lack of information from the district administration has prevented the problems from receiving public scrutiny.

Reports obtained by The Darien Times show that the desk audit was conducted on June 3, 2013, by Dr. William Howe, state Title IX coordinator/civil rights compliance with the state Department of Education. This audit focused on complaints made by several parents about bullying at Ox Ridge School. During the audit, Howe interviewed Ox Ridge Principal Luke Forshaw and Matt Byrnes, then-assistant superintendent of secondary education.

Parents had filed “several complaints” with the state regarding bullying at Ox Ridge, according to a letter of findings signed by Dr. Dianna Roberge-Wentzell, chief academic officer for the education department. Two of those who complained are parents of children receiving special education services, according to interviews with those parents.

These parents claimed Forshaw improperly handled bullying incidents that targeted special education students. One parent said that Forshaw took her child who had been allegedly bullied and placed the child in a room with the alleged bully. Forshaw told the victim that the bully had denied his actions, the parent said, adding that the special ed student became upset because now the bully knew his target had told on him. Because of this interaction, their classmates also knew the student had reported the bully.

“The issues only intensified as a result of this mishandling of bullying,” the parent said.

Another case involved Forshaw ignoring the request of a district-paid psychiatrist, which led to a child becoming hospitalized for 10 days due to anxiety, the parent said. The parent also said Forshaw “humiliated” her child when he carried the child down the hall with another staff member as the child suffered from headaches and extreme anxiety.

Howe was not called to investigate specific incidents, as that would be the duty of the federal Office of Civil Rights or the Office of Special Education Programs. Jim Bradshaw, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education, said the civil rights office had not received any complaints regarding the summer incidents. It’s unclear if the other office was investigating.

However, Howe found that the district did not have bullying policies or procedures in place, so parents likely would not have known the protocol for contacting the Office of Civil Rights. These procedures would have directed parents to contact that office if they were having problems with bullying. There are also at least two civil rights offices — one through the Department of Health and Human Services, and one through the Department of Education.

Forshaw did not respond to requests for comment, but instead forwarded The Times’ inquiry to Tim Canty, acting superintendent of schools. Canty then sent The Times a prepared statement, but did not indicate to whom the statement should be attributed and did not respond for clarification on attribution either.

“The district, through the efforts of Mr. Timothy Canty, its safe school climate coordinator, has begun to implement a district-developed plan for making these changes,” Canty stated. “We currently anticipate that the all the recommendations will be implemented by the end of this school year.”

Howe did not investigate specific allegations, since it would be out of his purview. Instead, he was called in to examine Ox Ridge’s student handbook, the district’s employee handbook, the Board of Education’s policy manual and the district’s website, according to state documents.

Howe found that the neither Ox Ridge’s student handbook nor the district’s employee handbook contained bullying policies or procedures, both of which are required under state law. This information might come as a surprise to some, as the district updated its bullying policy in September of 2011, to reflect changes in state law. These changes placed more emphasis on the outcome of a bullying act, rather than on a bully’s intent, and also expanded a district’s disciplinary jurisdiction to include off-campus bullying incidents.

A desk audit is intended to discover flaws in how information is disseminated, Howe said.

“If you can’t find it — if it’s buried in a big black binder at central office — that’s not helpful,” he said. “It’s supposed to be as accessible as possible.”

The state’s policy auditor said he couldn’t speak as to why the district did not have an updated manual in light of its updated policy, but emphasized the importance of transparency with these types of sensitive policies and procedures.

“We believe it’s important to be extremely transparent with these processes… so there’s no confusion over who you call” to file a complaint, Howe said.

Then-Superintendent Steve Falcone informed the school board of Howe’s June visit, but he did not say it was a desk audit, according to board members, and he did not say what initiated the audit. Two board members, however, have conflicting accounts of Falcone’s communication.

It appears that Falcone gave the school board only partial information. Betsy Hagerty-Ross, school board chairman, said Falcone “did not notify the board that the district had been subject to a desk audit.”

“He informed us back in June that a Dr. Howe visited the district and he reviewed certain handbooks,” Hagerty-Ross stated in an email. “The board was not informed by the administration that there was any connection between complaints and the desk audit. Nor was the board informed of the connection between policy updates and the desk audit.”

Falcone told the board Howe was there to conduct “a document review to ensure that applicable policies and procedures regarding bullying and harassment were in place,” according to then-board member Clara Sartori, who quoted Falcone in an email.

“We do this as a service to assist schools when the [state Department of Education] receives a number of complaints that might lead to [the Office of Civil Rights] or [the Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities] involvement,” Sartori quoted Falcone as saying.

Sartori, however, disagreed with Hagerty-Ross’s claim that Falcone never mentioned the complaint’s connection to Howe’s visit.

“The update goes on to say that [the] administration believes it is related to the special education complaint…,” Sartori stated in an email.

Board member Morgan Whittier said he was unsure whether Falcone told the board about Howe’s visit and its relationship to the special ed complaint.

Sexual harassment

Further confusing matters, the Board of Education voted to approve an updated sexual harassment policy on Aug. 27, 2013, but the desk audit was not mentioned by either the board members or the administration as the reason for this update. During the presentation, Canty did not indicate why the policy was being updated., and he has not responded to a request for clarification on this either.

After the meeting, The Times asked Falcone why the policy was updated, and Falcone said “it was time for an update.” When asked if something had happened to spark the update, Falcone said, “I’m not going to comment.”

Falcone resigned in late October, the day after a four-hour executive session was held by the Board of Education to discuss his performance, which had fallen under scrutiny as an assortment of illegal activity was found in the district’s special education program.

Canty did not respond to questions seeking clarification as to why he did not mention the desk audit when he presented the updated sexual harassment policy.

School board member Whittier said he was not informed that the desk audit revealed a problem with the district’s sexual harassment policy.

“I was under the assumption it was simply an update to comply with more recent state guidelines,” Whittier said.

Board members were aware of Howe’s visit, but they seem to have been in the dark as to why he came.

The district’s response to the audit was due to the state by Aug. 23, and it required the district to provide a “voluntary action plan” to outline how it would fix its noncompliance. The Board of Ed didn’t approve the new sexual harassment policy until Aug. 27. It’s unclear what information the district provided the state in its voluntary action plan. The Times has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the state to review all documents associated with the desk audit.

Neither the district’s employee handbook nor its student handbook had sexual harassment policies, and neither stated that sexual harassment is illegal, according to Howe’s findings. State law requires districts have these policies easily accessible, and include information on the complaint procedure as well as who to contact at higher levels should problems worsen. None of that could be found, according to the state’s findings.

Additionally, the district’s website did not indicate that complaints on sexual orientation or gender identity and expression discrimination can be directed to the state’s Commission of Human Rights and Opportunities. The Board of Ed’s policy manual included contact information for this agency, however the address listed for this commission was outdated, Howe found.

His office conducts roughly 10 random desk audits per year at high schools across the state. The Office of Civil Rights also performs random audits for compliance. Howe’s recent audit of Darien Schools, however, was done at the behest of parents’ complaints.

The district was also found out of compliance with Title IX policies, despite the district being out of compliance with Title IX several times since 2004.

Implications

Several parents told The Times that they were surprised that the bullying complaint involving children in special education was not included in the report made by Sue Gamm, the Chicago attorney who was hired to investigate the district’s special education practices.

Gamm said that nobody informed her of the desk audit, and that if it had been mentioned, she would have examined it. She did not ask school employees to provide her with every problem related to special education, she said, since that was not part of her contracted obligations as outlined by the Board of Education.

One of the parents, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect her child’s identity, said her child was bullied by Forshaw and actually ended up in a hospital based on Forshaw’s actions.

During her child’s team meeting, she claimed that Forshaw was told by a school-paid psychiatrist that her daughter would have a nervous breakdown if she was forced to change classes. This detail was included in the child’s individualized education plan, she said, adding that Forshaw decided to ignore the plan, despite the risks outlined by the psychiatrist.

She said Forshaw said “the decision was already made” to change classes. Soon after the change happened, her daughter had an anxiety attack, and was later hospitalized for 10 days. She also said her child was suspended and that she was not informed of the suspension.

“There are so many families in Ox Ridge that have problems with [Forshaw] in particular,” she said. “My husband and I feel that the decisions Luke Forshaw made against the wishes of the school-paid psychiatrist, psychologists and staff resulted in physical harm to my child.”

Ox Ridge School had more problems with parents of children in special education than any other school in town last year, according to the state’s Bureau of Special Education. During the 2012-13 school year — the year that was found to be rife with special education problems — there were 26 filings for due process made by parents of children with special needs who claimed the district was not providing their children with an appropriate education under federal law. Of those, nine involved Ox Ridge families.

For comparison, Royle had one, Tokeneke had two, Holmes had one and Hindley had one. The total number of complaints from last year more than tripled the number from the prior year (seven), and more than doubled the number from two years ago (11), according to the state.

There were more complaints at Ox Ridge last year than there were in the entire district the year before.

The Board of Education had maintained that it was unaware of the problems that existed, yet by the time the 25 parents had filed a complaint with the state Department of Education alleging systemic violations of state and federal special education laws, the district was facing 10 procedural complaints from various parents.

Procedural complaints involve issues where the complainant alleges violations to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Of the 10 complaints filed last year, three resulted in findings of noncompliance. This means that the district had already broken the law on at least three occasions when the 25 parents filed their collective complaint, yet the Board of Ed has maintained it was not made aware of the problems.

The prior two school years saw only one complaint, which was dismissed, according to the state.

These problems, when coupled with an assortment of illegal activities documented by the state and investigator Gamm, are reason for substantial changes in the district administration, many have said.

Originally published in the Darien Times.

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