Darien parents air grievances at state education meeting
It was a common word used by frustrated parents to describe a meeting on Monday, June 10, with representatives from the state Department of Education.
One father, who briefly left the meeting before returning 20 minutes later, said it was a room "full of pit bulls."
The meeting -- an opportunity for parents of children with special needs to directly address the state -- took place behind the closed doors of the Tokeneke Elementary School community room.
Though the media wasn't allowed access to the private session, the floor-to-ceiling glass walls provided a glimpse into the two-hour meeting that drew almost 100 parents.
"(The parents) do feel that the state listened," said Kathleen Casaparino, an educational consultant and advocate for many of the parents in attendance, after the meeting. "They were very eloquent in what they said."
One by one, parents could be seen approaching one of two microphones in the room to express their concerns and share personal stories of how they felt their children were being denied special education services in the town, parents said after the meeting. From beyond the glass barricade, rounds of booming and supporting applause were heard on more than one occasion as parents returned to their seats.
The meeting with four state representatives, including Michael Tavernier, head investigator, and Nancy Prescott, director of the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center, Inc., is part of a larger investigation that was initiated following a March 20 complaint by two dozen Darien parents who claimed services weren't being provided to their children and that the systematic policies within the school were illegal. The state department of education asked that Prescott be present for the meeting; CPAC is funded by the U.S. Department of Education.
Outside of the meeting, the father who referred to the parents as "pit bulls" said he told the state's representatives that last year, his planning and placement team (PPT) meeting was canceled due to weather.
The district had called him and asked if it could reschedule the meeting for another day, but the father was not available.
The district pressed and continued to ask if they could meet on that day.
The father continued to say he was not available.
Regardless, the PPT took place and the father was sent the individual education plan, without his input.
The father, realizing these actions were wrong, went to the state and filed a complaint.
He was shocked when a representative from the state called every day for five days in a row asking "what it would take to drop the complaint."
Some parents said their peers found it difficult to talk about the challenges they had faced when working with the special education department in the Darien schools. Some were visibly upset, either when addressing the representatives or sitting in their seats and listening to others' stories.
"To get up in a room like and to state your case that's so personal is really difficult to do and one parent after another was willing to get up," Casaparino said. "It was just really moving and really fantastic what they are doing."
"There wasn't anything we haven't heard before; it's just the volume and people willing to come together," Prescott said.
According to the complaint, the new policies, instituted by Deirdre Osypuk, the special education and services director who was appointed after the retirement of Robin Pavia, violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by removing the "team aspect" of the PPT meetings, at which students' programs and goals for the year are determined.
Under the law, educators are not allowed to make a predetermination about the students' programs before meeting with parents.
Roughly 24 parents addressed the state over the course of an hour and a half, according to Andrew Feinstein, the attorney representing the special education complaint, adding that more parents who would have spoken had the time been available.
At one point during the meeting, Feinstein and Casaparino said, the parents were asked how many of them had an advocate to help them through the special education process.
Casaparino said the majority of the room raised their hands.
"These parents shouldn't need to have an advocate," Casaparino said.
After the meeting, many of the parents could be heard expressing their shock at the large turnout of parents.
Casaparino echoed that sentiment.
"We were thinking that if 30 parents came out, that would be wonderful," Casaparino said.
The state investigation is set to conclude on or before June 30.