Special Education Parents Form Speducated Greenwich, Share Painful Stories at BOE Meeting

At the September BOE meeting, about a dozen parents testified about their dissatisfaction with special education services in Greenwich Schools.

The agenda was supposed to include an update on the review by University of Connecticut of Greenwich School’s Dept of Pupil Services (PPS), which administers special education services, but Superintendent Dr. Toni Jones said it was removed because she had yet to receive a document from a UConn professor.

Even though the item was off the agenda, about 20 special education parents attended, part of a larger group who formed Speducated Greenwich over the summer.

Parents from Speducated Greenwich said they had met privately before Thursday’s BOE meeting at New Lebanon School, with about 50 or 60 parents gathering at a local church. Several signed up to speak.

BOE chair Peter Bernstein warned asked people to be respectful and not direct criticism to individuals as that is not permitted by policy and directed people to Dr. Jones.

Several parents shared their stories. Here are some of them.

Diane Martinez and her husband David. Sept 19, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager

Diana Martinez, a parent of an autistic child with a coordination disorder and serious learning issues at North Mianus School said her son’s teachers and administrators love him and he adores them.

She said she and her husband were reluctant to speak up about what was wrong with the special education program because everyone had been so kind to their son.

“We’ve learned to keep our expectations in check about the extent of his disability, but we never thought we’d have to fight to make sure our son was more than a mascot for the school,” she said.

“Receiving high fives in the hallway, but failing on every measure to assess him, even failing to meet the minimum 80% mastery on his IEP goals. He is a student who can learn, but the system keeps failing him,” she said, adding that at a PPT meeting, an administrator said they were not planning to test her child because they already knew he would qualify for special education services again. “We were outnumbered, surrounded by 7 educators,” she said.

“We had to make the case for testing our son to establish a baseline for where he is….so we could write the goals to push him to the next level. …The team finally agreed to test him, but our spirits were so low when we left that day realizing they expected to pass him through year to year whether he was learning or not,” she said.

“Testing that is mandated by law, and that should be routine in any credible educational system,” she said.

Martinez said her child’s IEP meeting was filled with people consulting and providing services.

“I learned after seconds that his new BCBA (Board Certified Behavior Analyst) had never actually met him and was somehow consulting through email about a child she had never seen.

“How did we learn this?” she asked. “Only when we hired an advocate and filed a FERPA request were we actually able to see the actual state of our child’s education. Prior to that, our exchanges with the school were filled with cute stories about our son.”

Dawn Fortunato

Dawn Fortunato said she has had troubles with special education services for her two children and a nephew whose PPT she oversees. Sept 19, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager

Dawn Fortunato said she has two children in special education and an 11th grade nephew whose PPT meetings she attends. She said he has fallen behind so far behind in reading at GHS that “it’s like he’s in a foreign country.”

For a time he was working with a specialist she described as “working miracles,” but when the specialist retired, he was added instead to a group of eight other special education students without her knowledge or written prior notice from the PPT team.

“He cannot read. He cannot write. He takes notes by taking pictures with his cell phone,” she said, adding that he has only had one independent evaluation.

At his last PPT she was told he had skipped class 43 times, but that 11 were excused.

“When I asked who excused him, I was told, ‘We thought it was you.’ It certainly was not me,” she said. “All we hear when we ask for an IEE (independent educational evaluation) is ‘Request denied. Request denied,” she said to applause.

Another special education parent, Mike Goff said that in Connecticut between 2012-2018, parents pursued due process about 1,400 times, and about 1,300 cases were settled and 97 cases fully adjudicated.

Each time a due process case is resolved the hearing decision is posted on the State Dept of Education website.

“A fully adjudicated case is probably the best way to see a clear fact-based view of whether a school system is supporting or not supporting a student with special education needs,” he said.

“Witnesses testify under oath, documents are entered into evidence and scrutinized – parents, school representatives, experts and lawyers make their best case and an impartial hearing officer makes and documents a decision based on facts and the law,” he continued. “Pursuing a fully adjudicated due process strategy is stressful, time consuming, and expensive.”

Goff said his case took 15 months, with 18 days of hearings.

“We were out of pocket hundreds of thousands of dollars before the case was decided in our favor,” he said. “Due process is not a real option for most people. Most parents have to settle, and their cases are dismissed. In a settlement, parents must agree not to ever talk about their cases. This gag order does not apply to fully adjudicated cases.”

Of the 97 cases that were fully adjudicated over the past last 7 years in Connecticut, 88 of them were in school systems outside of Greenwich. Those school systems won their cases over 80% of the time.

During the same time period Greenwich lost 8 of their 9 cases, which is 90% of the time, while the rest lost less than 20% of the time.

“Greenwich has the worst  record in the State by far,” Goff said.

“Greenwich loses these cases so often because Greenwich fails to provide appropriate services to children with disabilities. 

For years the head of PPS on behalf of the district has used the burden of due process as a shield against parents’ well founded concerns instead of fixing special education in Greenwich.”

– Mike Goff

Goff was applauded when he said any audit of special education services should be led by the board rather than PPS team members, and that parents should have a voice in the process.

Christine Dodaj testified at the September Board of Education meeting Sept 19, 2019

Christine Dodaj said she’d been waiting 6 years for the the district to give her child an appropriate education.

“Six years of my child’s civil rights under the IDEA act have been violated time and again,” she said. “Delay, deny and lie.”

“After 3-1/2 years of fighting for an independent evaluation we were given a monster sized evaluation: ADHD Inattentive type, central auditory disorder, severe language disorder, severe memory processing disorder, dyslexia, dyscalculia, disgraphia, poor motor skills, clothing sensitivities, and more,” Dodaj said.

Dodaj said after her child was bullied for being identified as not learning, she put her daughter in Eagle Hill School, where she thrived for the first time ever, but after a full year back in public school, she has regressed.

“This ends now,” Dodaj said.

“We are not going to be intimidated any more. We will educate parents on their rights. We will fight until there is an appropriate education for all students in Greenwich, lasting change, and removal of administrators who violate our children’s civil rights.”

Lindsey Fahey testified at the Board of Education meeting on Sept 19, 2019 Photo: Leslie Yager

Lindsey Fahey said she has three children with special needs, including has a child who went deaf in second grade.

“I was told by his class teacher that he was not deaf, and they would not provide any services. They would make sure his hearing aids would not connect to the system, that they would not put balls on the chairs so his sound would not reverberate, that he would not be in a classroom with acoustic tiles,” she said. “We fortunately have a teacher for the deaf who is amazing and swooped in and said that was all not true and they would provide services.”

She also has two children with dyslexia and said she was given no reason when they were declined testing when they were in 2nd grade.

“Both have tested as dyslexic, one with severe dyslexia, but even when there was an IEP, the teachers hadn’t read it before the first meeting,” she said.

She said one morning her 7-year-old had been strapped down in an ambulance at 9:15am because the assistant principal decided she could no longer be there that day.

“She spoke to 211, the state agency that is basically the version of 911 for psychological issues, who told her explicitly, on the record, that it would be illegal to send my child to a psychiatric hospital. She did it anyway,” Fahey said.

Fahey said she has sued the district on numerous occasions and been successful each time.

Jennifer Socci, a parent at Glenville school with a son diagnosed with a reading disorder in fall 2017, said she and her husband asked for a speech evaluation, which was denied and her son continued to struggle.

“During the year we asked over and over wasn’t there going to be some testing and were told they were deciding what type of testing was best. I was assured he was making progress, so there was no need for testing.”

“On the way home from school one day I asked him, How do you think you’re doing in school? And he said, ‘It’s like this, Mom. We’re all on a stick but some of us fell off the stick, into the trash. But now not quite I’m not at the bottom, now I’m kind of half way in the middle.’ This is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard him say,” Socci said.

“Since I asked for a speech evaluation when he was in kindergarten, there were many roadblocks. I have them all dated with supporting documentation,” Socci said. “Over the course of time, and delayed action, our son continues not to meet benchmark reading levels. Research has proven that in kindergarten and first grade is when children should be identified and given appropriate instruction.”

“However, students are given RTI over significant period of time, some over many years,” she said referring to Response to Intervention. (The response to intervention process was introduced within the 2004 reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, IDEA.)

“I was told since he was making progress it shows he probably doesn’t have a disability. Schools shouldn’t use RTI as an excuse to delay or not evaluate a child suspected of not having a disability.”

During her superintendent’s remarks Dr. Jones said in addition to working with UConn who are doing a special education review, the district plans to work with  “Key2Ed,” an outside agency that according to their website, provides workshops and training on IEP meeting facilitation to educators.

Peter Bernstein said this was the second year running that a special education audit was a budget priority, and asked Dr. Jones whether the board would have to wait for next year’s budget for an audit.

“We keep hearing about this and the board is very interested,” he said.

Dr. Jones said, “I think that UConn, and the service I just talked about are kicking it off. I think this is a huge step in us being able to gather the information, listening to our community, looking at the programs, what we’re offering.”

Dr. Jones said she’d already met with several parents who were at Thursday’s meeting about topics including how long it takes to get through the intervention process before a child is tested.

“I know that that will probably come up, but it will be better for that to come from an external source after they listen to our stakeholders, our teachers, our psychologists and a broad group of people.”

Jones said, “We are building something in the budget so that next year we will be able to do a further study, but I think this year will inform what that needs to look like. In special education, is it about the finance aspect? Is it about services programs? And part of it is making sure we know what we’re asking for in the scope of the work. Because we don’t want to pay $300,000 on something that doesn’t work.”

“My understanding is we’ve done a lot of studies in the past,” said board member Kathleen Stowe. “We have to make sure we do something extremely different this time. Because obviously this community is asking for that. We haven’t met their needs.”

“I think the stakeholder input is different,” Dr. Jones said. “The biggest fear you always have is that it is information that sits on the shelf and not have an impact. Our goal is to listen and learn and see what we can do better. We hear that.”

On Tuesday morning Peter Bernstein wrote in an email, “The Board has voted to make and evaluation and audit of the special education program a budget priority. We are presently awaiting the results of a review of best practices by UConn and an additional external look at programs and services that will collect stakeholder engagement.”

He said Dr. Jones is leading this process and has told the Board that that this information, specifically the stakeholder feedback, will help inform the board about the scope of an evaluation and audit with an eye toward ensuring that it is actionable.