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Special ed parents want state's input in Darien

Published 11:13 am, Sunday, April 7, 2013
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Twenty-five Darien parents filed a complaint with the state Department of Education on March 20 claiming that the Darien special education system does not meet state standards and that federal funding should be pulled from the town.

"The extent of wrongdoing and violation of the rights of students with disabilities by the Darien Public Schools warrants serious consideration by the State Department of Education, pursuant to its supervisory responsibility over local education authorities pursuant to the IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)," the complaint reads.

The parents requested that the Department of Education call a meeting to address the complaint, during which time the parents will provide documentation and testimony to show that the Darien Board of Education "has systematically excluded parents from the IEP (Individual Education Plan) Team process and has acted to defeat the collaborative team process mandated," the complaint said.

"I was hearing lots and lots of complaints from [Darien] parents that services were being cut and complaints that their students were disqualified from special education and the level of complaints and due process requests coming out of Darien was really quite high," said Andrew Feinstein, a Mystic-based attorney who specializes in special education cases. "Then this memo came out and it indicated that it wasn't a string of individual cases but an overall problem with the process."

Parents were told of a memo from Dierdre Osypuk, the special education director, that outlined changes to the program that the parents believe violate IDEA. Osypuk is new to the district and was hired after former Special Education Director Robin Pavia retired at the end of the 2011-12 school year.

The parents filed an Freedom of Information request with the Board of Education seeking documentation about potential proposed changes within the special education program.

While they did receive documentation, the memo that they had heard of was not included. It is unclear how the parents received the memo, since they did not receive it through the FOI request.

Superintendent Stephen Falcone claims the exclusion of the memo it was merely an accident.

"In the recent request, at least one item was not included, a memorandum setting forth guidance in brief summary form on various special education issues," Falcone wrote. "Not including this document in our response was an inadvertent oversight for which we apologize."

The most "egregious" change in the memo is the perceived elimination of the "team nature" of the parent and placement team meetings.

PPTs, according to the memo, are to be addressed with a "unified front," and that "if changes are going to be recommended, differences among team members need to be worked out prior to PPT."

Parents interpreted this "unified front" as a "predetermination," something that is not allowed under the IDEA.

"The statute is very clear on the need for parental participation," Feinstein said, "which means there are PPT meetings and parents are there and they can bring their experts. It's supposed to be a collaborative open process to determine what a child needs and to provide a program for those needs. There is a line of federal cases saying that a school district cannot go in (to a PPT meeting) knowing what the outcome is going to be."

But according to a letter Falcone released last week, going into a PPT with knowledge is necessary.

"Embedded in the criteria are a series of questions which the PPT must answer," Falcone wrote. "These are sometimes challenging questions for which there may be differences of opinion. But in order to answer these questions beyond simply using one's gut instinct, it is necessary to refer to data to support one's assertion. This has required a renewed effort on all of the members of the PPT to prepare and use data in answering the eligibility criteria checklist."

If the state does conduct a full investigation, according to Feinstein, there will be a large review of paper work within the special education programs.

"The natural conclusion is that probably should be that Darien says, `Whoops, we made a mistake and we'll make changes,' " Feinstein said. "Darien has not done that yet and it's going to force the state to conduct fuller changes."

Money from the federal government is given to states to distribute to the school districts with the promise that the states will make sure that the school districts follow the statutes governing special education.

If the state chooses to retract funding from Darien, the special education program would be taken over by the state.

But that's not what the parents want, Feinstein said.

"Frankly, the parents don't want that to happen," Feinstein said. "They want Darien to clean up their act."

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-972-4407; @Meg_DarienNews