Darien community members said the person chosen to oversee special education must work collaboratively with all parties involved, according to a survey administered by the Board of Education.
At the Board of Education meeting on Tuesday, Vice Chairman Clara Santori presented the results of an online survey. In total, 107 people responded, and the survey was not restricted to families with special-needs children, but was offered to anyone in the district, teachers included. The results also include input from parents who spoke at the Aug. 8 public hearing on the issue.
The survey is another piece in the ongoing discussion of the Darien Public Schools' special education department following a March 20 complaint, filed with the state, by a group of more than two dozen parents who allege that the district violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by removing the "team aspect" of the Planning and Placement Team meetings. At PPT meetings, students' programs and goals for the year are determined. Under the law, educators are prohibited from making any sort of predetermination about the students' programs before meeting with the parents. The state Department of Education has since confirmed the parents' beliefs that the district violated IDEA laws.
On June 25, the Board of Education unanimously agreed to hire its own private investigator -- Chicago-based attorney Sue Gamm -- to review the complaint and subsequent allegations. The decision came following a private parents' meeting with several representatives that yielded information regarding Individual Education Plans being changed without parents' permission -- a violation of the IDEA.
Deirdre Osypuk, the current director of special education and services, has been on paid administrative leave since June 17. The independent overseer the district plans to hire is a temporary position for the 2013-14 school year.
Of those who responded to the survey, 68.2 percent were a resident of Darien with children in the school district and 46.7 percent of those was a family with a child receiving special education. Providing this information was optional. Not all those who responded are parents: 10.3 percent were a Darien resident without children; 12.1 percent were a member of the Darien Public Schools staff; and 8.4 percent were current or former students who attended Darien schools.
Those who took the survey were asked to identify the five primary characteristics they wanted to see in the person who will oversee special education. This position was formerly called the interim director, but Board of Education Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross corrected the title to be an independent person to oversee the special education department in Darien schools for the 2013-14 school year. It is anticipated that the selection process would commence and conclude by the end of the month.
The four other characteristics that were considered to be most important in the independent person were: experience in special education law, 70.5 percent; skilled in mentoring and training faculty and staff, 64.8 percent; experience as a special education teacher, 62.9 percent; and skilled in providing instructional and curriculum leadership, 58.1 percent.
Additional qualities mentioned include a person who does not know the families of Darien personally, further proving the parents' desire for a truly independent person.
Other qualities that survey takers submitted included "honest, able to follow the law/not to bend to the Board of Finance," "Interim special education director should do more than follow the letter of the law, but actually understand the spirit of the law and that the needs of the children come first."
Those who took the survey were asked which priorities the independent person should focus on and responded that he or she needs to be able to retrain staff and provide better training; meet needs within the budget; make personnel decisions as necessary; provide for more opportunities for teachers and parents to collaborate; promote culture change; is honest, has empathy and integrity and is ethical.
There was one question in the survey that asked for comments or recommendations to the Board of Education, some of which Santori said were good ideas. They include suggestions referring to teacher support, promoting a culture shift that removes adversity, listening to parents more often and spending more money on education than legal fees.
From all of the suggestions and feedback, Santori created a summary of what the community wished to see in the independent person:
"A candidate with high standards, who is skilled in working collaboratively and compassionately with parents, faculty and community and who is experienced in SPED (sic) teaching and knowledgeable in SPED (sic) and 504 law. The individual will oversee all aspects of the SPED (sic) program in Darien including: Providing instructional and curriculum leadership; restoring services to students where applicable; and training and mentoring faculty and staff."
The Board of Education also voted to appoint itself to the personnel search committee to find the independent person. Parents of special needs children were asked to submit letters of interest to sit with the board during the selection process. Hagerty-Ross said the two parents would be notified within the week.
mspicer@bcnnew,com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews