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Administrator: Special ed problems started years ago

Photo by Megan Spicer

Attorney Sue Gamm presented the executive summary of her independent investigation into the Darien special education on Monday, Nov. 4 in the Darien High School auditorium.

The problems in the Darien Special Education department are nothing new. At least that's what Director of Special Education and Services Deirdre Osypuk told attorney Sue Gamm.

The claims are included in Gamm's final report, which was released Dec. 16. Osypuk told Gamm in a Nov. 25 letter that many of the problems outlined in the full report began "prior to her tenure in Darien, and that she had tried to remedy areas the district perceived as problematic."

Requests for the letters Gamm referred to in her report from Osypuk and Assistant Superintendent of Secondary Schools Judith Pandolfo were made on Dec. 19, and have not been met.

Shipman & Goodwin, the Board of Education's lawyer, is reviewing the letters for any potential retractions, according to Gamm.

In Osypuk's Nov. 25 letter, she said some of the problems she inherited could be fixed but some "still need more work."

Some of the "historical problems" were brought to the surface as a result of a complaint filed by parents with the state Department of Education in March.

Osypuk told Gamm she inherited insufficient documentation to support the Excess Cost reimbursement.

During the course of Gamm's investigation into the special education department, it was determined that there could be an issue relating to the excess cost grants received from the state.

If the cost to educate a special education child is four-and-a-half times the cost of a general education student, the town is reimbursed by the state.

In November, the Board of Finance unanimously approved the hiring of CohnReznick, an audit firm, to conduct an independent audit of the Darien public schools' special education department. This followed an alert by Kate Buch, town finance director, and First Selectman Jayme Stevenson, who were contacted in October by the Board of Education's attorneys about a possible issue with the reporting of excess cost reimbursements to the state Department of Education.

The audit is set to start in January, according to Buch.

Osypuk also cited the lack of a Standard Operating Procedure Manual for special education practices in the district as something that needed resolving.

Through Gamm's investigation, it was revealed that Darien does not have a written finalized procedure manual regarding scientific research-based intervention, or SRBI. In 2008, state guidelines were changed to require that SRBI be used to identify learning disabilities. Gamm wrote that Pandolfo said that the district's 2010 SRBI procedures are "continuing to be developed, and would be posted on the district's website when completed." However, a final and legally approved manual is not available.

Results from a staff survey showed that a majority of the staff that responded "strongly disagreed" that they have received adequate training regarding Darien's SRBI process. Read Full Article 

"Reportedly, Darien had planned to introduce an electronic software system to facilitate SRBI-related data collection and reporting," Gamm wrote. "For a variety of reasons, the system was not implemented."

One teacher told Gamm that during former Director of Special Education and Services Robin Pavia's tenure, a committee was formed to work on a manual, but it was never finished. Four of the five committee members, including Pavia, told Gamm that the legal assistant in the group "understood that the assistant superintendent was taking responsibility of the manual's final approval and submission to BOE counsel for legal review and subsequent distribution."

Later, according to the report, Pandolfo told the legal assistant that she wanted to delete several portions of the manual but the legal assistant told her that they could not be deleted because they were legally required.

"... at no time did I take or accept sole responsibility for attorney approval or dissemination to staff and there is no evidence to the contrary, other than hearsay," Pandolfo wrote to Gamm in a Dec. 9 email.

In a March 28 email to Board of Education members, former Superintendent Stephen Falcone attached a special education manual and said it was being used "as a resource throughout the district."

However, Gamm's report states that there was no special education manual that had been used by district staff.

"In its absence, there was no single document reflecting all of the procedures and processes necessary for the consistent administration and operating of special education," Gamm wrote. She makes reference to a series of PowerPoint presentations and collective handouts that were released over a series of months "and were sometimes contradictory."

On March 20, a group of parents filed a complaint with the state Department of Education claiming that the Darien public schools violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act by removing the "team aspect" of the Planning and Placement Team meetings, at which students' programs and goals for the year are determined. At a later meeting with state representatives, allegations were made that Individual Education Plans were changed after PPTs and services were not being provided. Those allegations were found by the state to be true.

"As a result, as my full report documents, the multitude of procedural and practice changes negatively impacted students and their services; parents experienced needless frustration and anxiety as they sought to address the changes; and staff members were caught between complying with their superiors expectations and following what they believed to be federal and state requirements," Gamm wrote.

mspicer@bcnnew.com; 203-330-6583; @Meg_DarienNews

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