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Connecticut school district responds to IDEA violations

A Connecticut school district in the suburbs of New York City violated the IDEA by denying special education students the proper services for the past year, according to a recent Connecticut State Department of Education investigation. The case shows districts may run afoul of the law if special education services are reduced due to budget cuts.

The special education department at Darien Public Schools changed student individualized education plans (IEPs) outside of planning and placement team (PPT) meetings with parents, violating state and federal law, according to the state investigation. Some documents used to train staff were not compliant with the IDEA, the investigation also found.

In March, a group of 25 parents of children with special needs filed a complaint with the state Department of Education, alleging the district illegally removed students from the special ed program and reduced numbers of IEP goals to save money. The claim also alleged that the district, under special education director Deirdre Osypuk, made changes to student IEPs without consulting parents.

An ensuing state investigative report released in July found that 16 documents used by the district for training special education teachers contained “overly restrictive, inaccurate, noncompliant and/or incomplete guidance.” One document required teachers to speak with staff, such as board-certified behavior analysts, before recommending student services. The state said that violated the IDEA by undermining the decision-making authority of the PPT.

A second report, released Sept. 25, included statements from staff who said that Osypuk “gave a directive to exit students from special education.” Staff also said that IEPs were changed without parental consent, and students with diverse needs were inappropriately grouped together for instruction to save money.

“Unilaterally altering a student’s IEP is wrong,” Darien Public Schools Superintendent Stephen Falcone wrote in a statement on Sept. 26. “I will hold those whose actions were in violation of the law accountable.” Falcone did not return phone calls for this story.

The report vindicates Darien parents, says their attorney, Andy Feinstein. “The parents who initiated this investigation have been looking for repudiation of the illegal policies, remediation for students injured by those policies, and accountability for the wrongdoing,” Feinstein says. “Darien has done an exemplary job on repudiation and remediation. We are still waiting to see accountability.”

Kit Savage, one of the parents who filed the complaint, says staff members responsible for doctoring IEPs should be fired. The September report found that 80 percent of special education staff members supported Osypuk and the procedural changes she made after she was hired in July 2012. “It indicates a devastating gap in training of staff who thought that following Osypuk’s directives would ever be in the best interest of any child,” Savage says.

The September report requires the district to provide parents with the most recent version of their student’s IEP, and offer parents whose IEPs were impacted the chance to have a PPT meeting with an outside facilitator.

District officials also must consider compensatory services if it is determined that the student’s opportunity for a free and appropriate public education—as required under the IDEA—was compromised. The district also must train all central office and school administrators on how IEPs can be changed legally.

Darien Public Schools hired in July attorney Sue Gamm from Illinois to investigate its special education programs. The education department report states that hiring Gamm was an appropriate remediation response. She will file a report investigating the depth of the district’s illegal activity by late October, and submit it to the state for any other potential follow-up.

Osypuk was put on paid administrative leave in June, and remained there as of early October. At press time, Darien’s board of education was searching for someone to oversee the department for the year.

Jim Chapple, treasurer of the International Association of Special Education, says districts need to ensure special education services remain in place despite budget cuts. This may involve getting creative with service delivery and reevaluating how to use staff members, he says.

Moving forward, Darien administrators need to reestablish a relationship and sense of trust with parents, Chapple adds. “Special education is a collaborative process between families and school districts,” he says. “It takes parity on both sides for it to be successful for children.”