District address desk audit findings six months after report

A school district administrator publicly reported to the Board of Education the results of a desk audit that happened six months earlier, when a state investigator came to Ox Ridge School and found the district was out of compliance with various bullying, sexual harassment and gender equality laws.

Tim Canty, assistant superintendent of secondary education, told the Board of Ed at its Dec. 10 meeting about the desk audit, which happened on June 3. The audit was not performed randomly, but was done in response to complaints from at least two parents who claimed the Ox Ridge School principal, Luke Forshaw, violated the rights of their children with disabilities.

Canty did not mention the reason for the state’s visit, and simply noted when it happened, and later actions. The Darien Times originally reported the results of the desk audit in November. When asked at that time by email to clarify why he didn’t mention the reason for the state’s visit, Canty did not respond.

“The visit by Dr. William Howe was conducted with the goal of reviewing documents in Darien to ensure applicable documents and procedures were in place,” Canty told the school board, adding that his predecessor, Matt Byrnes, oversaw the audit.

“This work has been ongoing,” Canty continued. “It is in deed related, in some respects, to the work of the special education process, and that investigation.”

Howe found that the district did not have bullying policies or procedures in place, despite the school board approving an updated bullying policy in September of 2011.

The district submitted its voluntary plan to correct the violations on Aug. 23. Four days later, the Board of Education voted to approve an updated sexual harassment policy, but Canty never mentioned why the policy was being changed. The policy was being updated because there was no policy, according to Howe’s findings; at least, there were none in the student or employee handbooks or online.

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

Board member Morgan Whittier earlier told this newspaper that he was under the impression that the sexual harassment policy was changed as an “update to comply with more recent state guidelines, and not the result of noncompliance.”

Two school board members had conflicting recollections as to what they were told by then-Superintendent Steve Falcone regarding the desk audit. Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross said Falcone never mentioned the desk audit or that is was related to alleged violations of the rights of children with disabilities. Former member Clara Sartori said Falcone mentioned the desk audit might be related to the special education situation.

Falcone abruptly resigned amid allegations that he hid a damaging letter from the Board of Ed. This letter, written by the former head of the district’s speech and language department, explained in detail an assortment of problems in the special education department — problems that culminated in a state complaint and a two-part investigation that found district broke numerous state and federal laws.

If Falcone had addressed the seriousness of the letter with the school board when he first received it, many of the problems might have been avoided, some parents have said. Others have said the school board knew of the problems but did little to get to the bottom of the situation. The board has said its hands were tied as it was not getting all the information it sought from the administration.

Falcone was soon hired to run Stamford Schools’ human resources department; a position he inquired about while still in Darien. However, he applied the day after he resigned, yet stated he was still an employee and was leaving for a “new opportunity.” Former school board Chairman Kim Westcott praised Falcone’s crisis management in a recommendation letter written after the state and independent investigations confirmed the illegal activity, saying she “trusts him implicitly.”

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. This federal statute ensures gender equality in school sports.

Updating the employee manual with new Title IX, bullying and sexual harassment policies and procedures would likely require, at the very least, an outside eye to vet its quality, Canty said. Interim Superintendent Lynne Pierson noted that employee manuals “are typically works in progress.”

“You start with what you have and you improve it consistently and regularly,” Pierson said, adding that there are legal issues, union agreements and “practical and pragmatic and procedural” information that should be included.

“We don’t need to make it complex,” Pierson said. “Its purpose is to guide and support the employees and the employers.”

Darien’s employee handbook was last updated in 2010. [Click here to view the handbook]

Hagerty-Ross emphasized the importance of the district to have a communication plan to get information out to parents. Canty said that “is a priority,” but mentioned there was not plan in place yet.

The bullying policies drew the most discussion. Each school has a safe school climate specialist, who are the assistant principals in the elementary schools and other administrators in the middle and high schools. The district is also in the process of creating safe school climate committees at each school; committees that would include parents, according to Canty.

“We still need to follow up on that and make sure it’s in place,” Canty said of the committees.

Training for district employees on the new bullying policies has not yet begun for this year, despite the district’s policy update in 2011, and its response to the desk audit in August, as pointed out by parent Kit Savage.

“That work has not taken place this year, and needs to take place the second part of this year,” Canty said.

Board member Christa McNamara stressed the importance for the district to communicate to parents who the point person would be at each school for bullying complaints, especially if a parent wants to report a problem anonymously. Canty said anyone can file a complaint using any number of communication tools, and that the safe school climate specialists were responsible for ensuring each complaint is investigated properly.

“We have a strong commitment to creating and maintaining a safe educational environment free from bullying, harassment and discrimination in our schools,” Canty said.

Board member Heather Shea stressed the importance of confidentiality.

“We have to be very, very sensitive, that sometimes you won’t know what happened because it’s a child involved,” Shea said.

The idea of confidentiality has remained a hot topic among parents of children with disabilities, some of whom have said that the Board of Ed has hidden behind confidentiality laws unnecessarily. While the school board has included a public comment section at the beginning of its meetings for the first time in recent history, Hagerty-Ross forbid speakers from discussing their children publicly.

“Obviously any comments of a personal nature about your student, staff or board member will not be permitted,” she said. Parents have the right to waive their child’s right to privacy and discuss their children’s education, whether they are in special ed or general ed. In most cases, however, school boards cannot engage in dialogue about these children.

Hagerty-Ross did not respond to an email seeking clarification on why the school board chose to not allow parents to discuss their children’s education publicly.

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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