Ten months after allegations of misconduct, district finally reviewing student records

Children’s special education plans are finally being examined, 10 months after parents brought concerns to the school board in the form of a state complaint alleging that the district was illegally changing these plans.

John Verre, the special education ombudsman, reported to the Board of Education at its Jan. 14 meeting that he has identified 49 children whose individualized education plans included some form of violation.

These violations were proven in a two-part state Department of Education Investigation, and by attorney Sue Gamm, however, it was never discussed how many children were affected and whether their educations were harmed.

These violations included the denial or withdrawal of special education services, illegal changes to IEPs, timeline violations and inappropriate specifics in IEPs.

“We are now launching a comprehensive investigation of all IEPs in the district using automated search of IEP materials that are generated on every student, doing data and test search of those IEPs for problematic signals in all IEPs, and then moving on to paper review in those cases where we find problematic data and text,” Verre told the school board.

An audit of children’s IEPs is what parents have called for since last March, and this newspaper addressed the need for the district to examine IEPs in several editorials beginning in May.

Vickie Riccardo, a member of the Environmental Protection Commission and parent of a dyslexic child, expressed concern that children with disabilities often suffer when services are denied or taken away from them.

“When services are withdrawn, unilaterally modified or poorly delivered, children can backslide, resulting in the need for even more services and, tragically, lost potential,” Riccardo said. “I know that the window for effective, school-based intervention for special needs children is open briefly. A child is young for only a few years. The system lumbers on forever.”

Verre assured the school board that the 49 children whose rights were violated are in the process of receiving compensatory services to make up for those lost services.

At least one case per week has come to his office, alleging IEP or other violations, he said.

“The [IEP investigation] process is demanding,” Verre said. “It takes a great deal of time. I’m working closely with the superintendent and school administration to complete the analysis as soon as possible.”

It’s unclear if any of these children have fallen behind either academically, emotionally or psychologically as a result of these confirmed violations. Verre could not be immediately reached for comment to clarify these potential consequences.

Verre is also examining ways to improve practices by working with staff and attending planning and placement team meetings, of which he’s attended 12. These PPTs are held at least once a year to determine a child’s IEP.

“It is informing already our thinking about professional development and the development of programs and services,” Verre said. “It is the most powerful kind of planning, as it is generated by the needs of the individual students.”

State officials are also requiring the district to submit an action plan to the state by May that shows the steps Darien is taking to fix its problems. The state found 11 specific violations to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and attorney Gamm elaborated that to include 32 different violations.

The school board’s special education subcommittee is planning on meeting twice a month to address the action plan. Last year, this committee only met once, yet the school board has consistently said that subcommittee meetings are where most of the important discussions take place. These meeting are held early in the morning and are not televised or recorded.

District officials are also working on creating a standard operating procedure manual for the special education department, along with a manual for Section 504 and for SRBI, which deal with assisting children who need some additional help, like preferential seating, or children who fall behind in class.

“There has been a tremendous amount of work done on this in past years,” Verre said of these manuals, “so we are not starting from a blank slate.”

Former special education Director Robin Pavia said she created a manual but its implementation was blocked by Judith Pandolfo, assistant superintendent.

Pavia said Pandolfo blocked it because it spelled out the law clearly, and left no room for interpretation. Pandolfo has not responded to requests for comment.

The district’s SRBI manual was riddled with problems, Gamm found. It asked staff to only provide “very general information” to parents, which is counter to guidance from the state. A majority of staff and parent survey respondents reported to Gamm they were not clear on SRBI practices. Gamm was not given the SRBI manual, but found it while performing a Google search.

These manuals should be finished by the end of the school year, at which point the district’s lawyers could vet them and they should be ready for implementation by next school year, Verre said.

Verre also noted the district has been using a consultant to help with its professional development for special education staff, although it’s unclear how much this person is costing the district.

School board member David Martens asked Verre if there are other cases not yet discovered involving children whose educational rights might have been violated.

“There may be other cases where there are potential violations,” Verre said. “We may have already addressed that, but we won’t know until I am able to identify them” through the IEP audit process.

“Parents are expecting us to be doing a better job,” the ombudsman continued. “They’re pointing out challenges that we have.”

Verre said he expects more parents will come to him “for a while” with concerns, but that eventually it will level off. An estimation for this equalization date was not provided.

Verre emphasized that Darien children are “no different” from children across the country, in terms of need and severity of disability.

“The pressure is on us to do a better job that actually results in improved outcomes for kids with disabilities,” he said. “I have to say that it’s a privilege to work on the issue of improving outcomes for kids with disabilities in a place that really believes we should be doing it.”

Originally published in The Darien Times.

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