More than 10% of children with disabilities are being taught in schools outside of Darien, and this has parents and district administrators concerned for a variety of reasons. Yet the exact number of children who are receiving special education services who live in Darien remains unreported.
John Verre, the special education ombudsman, told the Board of Education at its Jan. 27 budget meeting that there could be too many children in other schools, which could mean the district is engaging in “overly restrictive placement.”
“Should it be one out of 10 children [being placed out of district]? I don’t think so,” Verre said.
Children with disabilities are required by law to be educated in the least restrictive environment, or LRE. In Connecticut, this is defined by time spent with non-disabled peers.
“There are many different reasons why” so many children are being placed out of district, Verre said. “We don’t have all the data readily available to us to do the analysis we need to do.”
During last year’s special education crisis, Darien handled more requests for mediation in one year than it had in the previous two years combined, as many parents were unhappy with the services being offered after Deirdre Osypuk took over the special education department. The year before Osypuk came to Darien, there were 41 children placed out of district. By Oct. 1, 2013, only six months after parents filed a complaint alleging violations of federal special education law, that number increased to 58, the highest in at least four years.
However, when Verre was asked how many children in other schools actually have individualized education plans, he said he could not answer that question. In Connecticut, Verre said, children can be placed in other schools at public expense even if that child does not have an IEP, which is the legal term for the program that children with disabilities receive once they are deemed eligible for special education.
Of the 4,895 students who enrolled in Darien Schools this year, 563 are receiving special education services. This number is 11.5% of the total school population, and represents a dramatic decrease over last year, when 13.1% of Darien kids were in special ed. Parents have said this shows the district removed many children from special ed to save money, and two investigations provided evidence to support this claim.
The percentage of children in special education is the lowest since 2010, yet the number of children placed in other schools is the highest since at least 2010. The Darien Times reported recently that the total number of all children attending schools outside of town reached a seven-year high last year.
The figure of 563 students does not reflect the total number of kids in special education in and out of district. Some parents place their children in another school and simply pay for it themselves. Verre said he did not have data to determine how often that has happened.
“We won’t know about those children unless their parents tell us,” Verre said. “I have to believe those data are available somehow.”
Outplacement costs are expected to rise by 21.35% to $4.41 million next year. Verre also expressed concern that the district was “disproportionately” placing students in other schools based on certain disabilities. Children with an emotional disability represented 36% of all kids out-placed, but are only 3.5% of the total special education population. Children with autism comprise 19% of the out-placed kids, but are only 8.7% of the disabled population.
Children with learning disabilities, which most often means they have dyslexia, are also out-placed often, although Verre did not address this. Many of these children attend schools such as Villa Maria in Stamford or Winward School in White Plains, N.Y.
In 2012, five Darien kids attended Villa Maria, although it’s unclear how many of them attended at public expense. Tuition there is roughly $42,000 a year for kindergarten through fifth grade. Parents have said that these kids could easily be taught in-district, if Darien had a more rigorous reading curriculum and certified its teachers in the Orton-Gillingham method, which is a phonics-based teaching tool.
Verre said some children placed out-of-district need to be there, but Darien should look closely at trying to decrease the number of kids in other schools.
“In my experience, there is a strong relationship between the quality of services in the district and the number of students out of district,” Verre said. “As we get better, that number should come down.”
Originally published in The Darien Times.