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Parents of special needs students want more information on changes to Darien, Conn. program

desrochesBy David DesRoches, assistant editor, The Darien (Conn.) Times

DARIEN, Conn. – What started as a simple records request by a handful of parents has blossomed into an unprecedented legal matter that challenges the integrity of an entire school district, and perhaps even the state’s education department.

Parents of special needs children in Darien became concerned about their children’s legal right to a free and appropriate education, what’s known as FAPE, when a new special education director was hired in June of 2012.

The new director, Deidre Osypuk, came to one of the best performing districts in the state, if not the country, from Bloomfield, one of the worst performing districts.

A little background: many in town had expressed concern over the growing special education population, which was more than the state average, and its cost. Darien was spending about 28 percent of its total education money on special ed, whereas the average for similar districts was about 21 percent.

The schools had also gone over budget in special ed spending for about three consecutive years. Purse holders in town had warned that they would not fill future budget holes if the schools could not rein in spending.

A few parents decided they wanted to know exactly what kind of changes were taking place in special education programming, so they filed a records request with the schools. They got some information, but there was a rumor about a memo that included directives that were not in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). They asked specifically for that memo, but the schools’ superintendent, Steve Falcone, did not acknowledge this request, according to parents.

But then someone within the district leaked the memo to parents. The Pandora’s Box flew open with wild abandon. The memo appears rife with illegal directives that restrict parental involvement and put most of the control into Osypuk’s hands.

Within weeks, 18 parents filed a complaint with the state, asking for the Department of Education to cease funding the town and take over management of special education – both unprecedented in the Constitution State.

The district went on the defensive. Falcone told The Darien Times newspaper that he only learned of the memo once parents filed the complaint. He defended practices, saying the district was merely becoming more efficient. He admitted to omitting the memo, but said it was not intentional.

But there were other omissions. A PowerPoint presentation that further showed potential illegal activity surfaced. Then an eligibility guideline for diagnosing children with Attention Deficit Disorder came out. Its level of restriction basically made it impossible for any child to get special ed services for ADD, some parents have said.

The district has not commented on either of these later omissions. They have chosen for their version of events to come out during the complaint process.

The Darien Times has filed records requests to see all emails related to special education between staff, administration and the Board of Education — the elected officials. The paper was told there are thousands of emails and was asked to further refine the request. The paper has decided more is better than not enough, and is working with the district on a feasible timeline.

Via other requests, the newspaper also reviewed Oyspuk’s application packet along with resignation letters of all special education staff who resigned since Osypuk took over.

There are many, but the letters are unsurprisingly boilerplate. However, off-the-record conversations with Bloomfield parents and officials along with educators with close ties to Darien, have all confirmed the parents’ suspicion, as has examining Osypuk’s application packet.

But the deeper issue is one of accountability and transparency. If the district is working within the law, as they claim, then why did they omit key documents that included the exact kind of information that was requested by parents on several occasions? The requests for records began in earnest in early January, but parents had been asking about programming changes since September of 2012. The compliant was filed on March 20.

If there is nothing to hide, then why the hiding?

The Darien Times has also begun examining the Board of Education’s charter and its contract agreement with the superintendent. The board is the superintendent’s boss, but in action, it appears they are more of a rubber stamp for the superintendent. They have hidden behind imaginary walls of legality, claiming special education issues are sensitive and not subject to FOIA.

This is false, as the parents were seeking information on policy changes, not on individual cases. In Connecticut, there are three categories for items exempt from FOIA —  exceptions, exclusions and exemptions, the later being permissive. The Darien Times has requested all exemptions to be included in its records requests.

The local teachers union has not responded to numerous requests for comment. It’s unclear if any grievances have been filed. Adding more mystery ingredients to the stew, there is the first race for president of the teachers union in more than two decades.

The elected officials (school board) have yet to step up. When the parents filed their complaint, the board chose to express concern that the complaint was filed, rather than to direct attention at the actual allegations. It could prove to be an interesting election season.

This event, at its core, is a reflection of a broader problem that many in town point to as the real culprit — a culture of secrecy that leaves most in the dark while a few hold the candles. Concerned parents, however, are bringing spotlights. Local media will hopefully add a bulb or two.