Questions remain unanswered at Special Education Advisory Committee meeting
Published 3:50 pm, Thursday, July 18, 2013
"Tonight we pledge to our parents a greater communication and a greater partnership with the Board of Education," said Katrina O'Connor, a member of the advisory committee. "Solid partnership is rooted in trust. This past year, this trust has been damaged. Trust between a parent community and the Board of Education can only exist with transparency, communication and mutual respect."
On March 20, two dozen parents of children with special needs filed a complaint with the state Department of Education alleging that services had been denied their children and that there were systematic violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Act within the schools. The state has since launched an investigation into the complaint.
The committee has been evolving over the course of the last four years and has been more organized during the last few months, O'Connor said.
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Superintendent Stephen Falcone, who has received criticism from parents, and Andrew Feinstein, the attorney representing the parents, sat at the head table with the committee members. Falcone was asked a series of questions that the committee gave him before the meeting.
Falcone was first asked about the status of Deirdre Osypuk, the special education and services director who was appointed after the retirement of Robin Pavia and who was placed on paid administrative leave June 17.
Osypuk's contract was extended an additional year in May. She was also given a "salary step," Falcone said, something that was contractually required.
On June 25, the Board of Education unanimously agreed to hire its own private investigator to review the complaint and subsequent allegations against the Darien special education department, a process in which the members of the advisory committee wanted to participate.
"As the complaint unrolled, the Board of Education was following and monitoring the investigation that the superintendent and his staff put forward and monitoring the investigation of the state and making sure that they had access to what they needed," said Board of Education Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross, who was seated in the audience with some of her colleagues. "When allegations surfaced at the parent meeting, it was clear that the Board of Education needed to act on having a separate investigator to make sure that all the facts were looked at independently and there would be no question of who was looking into it and how it was being done."
During a private meeting on June 10, parents were given the opportunity to address representatives from the state Department of Education and tell them firsthand how they felt the rights of their children with special needs were being violated.
Some of the allegations told of Individual Education Plans that had been changed after the Planning and Placement Meeting -- a violation of the Individuals with Disabilities Act.
"This is an unusual step for the board to take this step," Hagerty-Ross told the advisory committee. "This is new ground for all of us here. We are breaking new ground as a board to make sure the answers for the investigation come out as clear and transparent as they can. We are special education parents, some of us on the Board of Education. We have a lot of stake in this like you do."
Throughout the course of the night, Kit Savage, a member of the advisory committee, continuously asked how Falcone would be going about his own individual investigation, which he said he would undertake.
Savage asked how Falcone planned to discover which students did not have their IEPs delivered, which is required by law.
"In all honesty, that's a difficult charge," Falcone said.
"It's a necessary step," Savage said.
Falcone told the committee and the audience that the Board of Education investigator would be a key player in the overall investigation and determining how and which IEPs were not delivered.
"Unfortunately, as soon as you get the state involved, it takes time," Falcone said. Again, Savage asked what steps Falcone anticipated to take during the course of his investigation.
But frustration was evident on the faces of the parents in the room.
"There is no way a parent will know that services aren't being delivered," said Ed Piorkowski, a parent and member of the audience. "There is no way that a parent will know that unless their kid is sophisticated enough to say, `Mom, I didn't get what I was supposed to.' "
O'Connor also questioned why the number of extended school year services had severely declined from 265 children receiving the services as of May 1, 2012, to 50 on May 1, 2013.
The final numbers of children enrolled in the ESY program will be presented at the July 31 Board of Education meeting.
Continued questions concerning the hiring and current employment status of Osypuk occurred during the public comment.
"We can't comment anymore on Dr. Osypuk because it is a personnel matter," Hagerty-Ross said. "There are contractual issues at this moment as we speak, and the more we discuss it, the worse it's going to get for everyone involved. We are all surprised by the turn of events. We're here to fix it. We're here to understand what happened, but we're also here to move forward and fix it because at this point in time we have to move forward, otherwise we're just going to stay in the same place."
Hagerty-Ross told the audience and the committee that to the Board of Education, each child is a regular child.
"My mantra here is, as a parent of a special ed child, that a special ed child is a regular child first, there's no difference," Hagerty-Ross said.
She acknowledged that parents and members of the communities have expressed frustration over the time that the state education department has taken in concluding its investigation. On June 28, state investigators announced that the department would be extending its investigation, which was set to conclude on June 30, by a "couple of weeks." There is no clear deadline for the investigation conclusion.
"We need time to figure out what happened," Hagerty-Ross said. "I'm sorry we don't have all the answers tonight. I'm sorry we couldn't give them a week ago, but the problem is that the state of Connecticut is involved and we need them to point us in the right direction to uncover everything we can uncover."