Board of Education seeks to hire independent investigator
The Board of Education unanimously approved, 8-0, a motion at its Tuesday meeting to hire its own independent investigator to review the complaint and subsequent allegations against the Darien special education department.
"As a Board of Education and as a community, we must make sure the appropriate procedures and practice are in place and appropriate supervision to assure that special education needs of Darien students are met in accordance with the law," said board Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross.
"Specifically, that the board direct board counsel to consult the state Department of Education to identify an independent person of appropriate training and experience to investigate PPT (planning and placement team) meeting procedures, allegations concerning unilateral subsequent changes to IEP (individual education plan) documents and delay of required training materials under the Freedom of Information Act and that such person be retained by board counsel on behalf of the board and superintendent to conduct such investigation and report back the results of that investigation to the board."
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 to special education 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. A closed-door meeting took place on June 10, during which time parents had the opportunity to speak directly to representatives from the state Department of Education about how they feel their rights and their children's rights were violated by the policies set forth by Deirdre Osypuk, the special education and services director who was appointed after the retirement of Robin Pavia.
The final report is set to be finished on June 30.
"From the beginning the Board of Education took these complaints seriously," Hagerty-Ross said. "As is typical of such claims, we left it to the board counsel and superintendent to deal with the complaint in the appropriate legal forum. Therefore, to date, the Board of Education and I have had little to say publicly, even though on behalf of the board, I have been monitoring the situation and confirming with the board counsel as requested since the complaint was filed."
According to the complaint, the new policies, instituted by Osypuk, violated the IDEA by removing the "team aspect" of the PPT meetings, at which students' programs and goals for the year are determined.
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Under the law, educators are not allowed to make a predetermination about the students' programs before meeting with the parents.
Superintendent Steven Falcone told the board during Tuesday's meeting that over the course of the complaint process, he has visited all seven schools to speak with the special education instructors.
"What I told them was what I believe: That I have the utmost confidence that those teachers, that those people, who are working and are committed to those students and are passionate about those students and have a passion for generating the kind of teaching and learning environment that we value," Falcone said. "I couldn't be more proud of the job they do educating our students."
Hagerty-Ross told the board that she believed several actions needed to be taken.
"First, I am recommending that the board, in consultation with the state Department of Education retain its own independent investigator given that the state may have limited resources to devote to this investigation," Hagerty-Ross said. "We want to assure that the investigation of these matters, in cooperation with the state or otherwise, is thorough and independent so that the results of these investigations are credible to parents, teachers and other members of the Darien school community.
"Second, I recommend that we seek to find and independent person to oversee special education in Darien for the coming year," Hagerty-Ross added. "That person will be responsible for assuring legal compliance for restoring credibility, for addressing concerns for parents and teachers about the process, and for assuring that responsible parties are held accountable for any mistakes or wrongdoing."
Osypuk was placed on paid administrative leave on Monday, June 17.
"During a visit by State Department of Education personnel last week, allegations were made that substantive changes had been made to IEPs outside of the PPT process," Falcone wrote in a letter sent June 17 to his staff. "We take these allegations very seriously because any such conduct would compromise the PPT process and violate the law. We must promptly address these allegations and remedy any violations as soon as possible. We are cooperating fully with the state Department of Education as it investigates these allegations, and we have begun to conduct our own internal investigation into these allegations."
Additionally, the board hired Theresa DeFrancis, an education consultant and attorney with special education experience, to independently review and revise staff development materials.
"Ms. DeFrancis will also provide new training to teachers, service providers, administrators and parents in the requirements of the special education laws as may be necessary to rectify any problems and ensure that our processes are in accordance with state and federal law," Falcone wrote in a letter to parents.
Clara Sartori, vice chairman of the Board of Education, also addressed the complaint at the June 17 Board of Education meeting.
"In a town where families move in for the schools, it was devastating to hear the complaints that have come to us over the past several months," Sartori said.
"This community of high expectations for its children deserves no less from its Board of Education," she added.
The state investigation is expected to conclude on or before June 30.
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