Ask and you shall receive.
Except when it comes to getting information about special education program changes in Darien, according to at least 18 parents who filed a complaint against the district with the state Department of Education, urging an unprecedented halt of state and federal money to the public schools because of “the extent of wrongdoing and violations of the rights of students with disabilities…”
An unnamed whistleblower has blown the lid off of what parents are calling an affront to public education, and the information gleaned since has unraveled a tangled web of what appears to be conflicting statements and penny-pinching measures aimed at reducing costs at the expense of the town’s most vulnerable children, sources said.
The whistleblower sent a number of special education parents a memo they were originally told did not exist by the school administration, according to sources who wished to remain anonymous. The memo, drafted by recently hired special education director, Dr. Deirdre Osypuk, outlined numerous changes to special ed programming, which, parents contend, “misstates the law in numerous instances.”
Before getting the memo through the tipster, parents tried to obtain a copy but were stonewalled by Dr. Stephen Falcone, schools superintendent, sources said. They tried obtaining the memo through other channels and again were told the memo did not exist. They filed a Freedom of Information request to obtain all correspondence related to special education program changes and the memo was left out.
That is until someone sent them the memo, unsolicited.
Several parents told the Darien Times they had been experiencing drastic cuts to their children’s Individualized Education Plans, or IEPs, after Osypuk took over managing special ed in town last June. The IEPs are arranged with goals for the child to reach, and can include methods and timelines for achieving such goals.
After experiencing what some have considered “extreme” and “unnecessary” IEP changes, some parents have placed their children in private school, despite at a cost that could be overwhelming to some.
In response to questions about whether other parents would perceive this action as nitpicking, a source told the Darien Times that this is simply a request by a group of parents that the state clarify policies.
“This is not a group of parents complaining, and this is not a lawsuit,” the source said.
Molly Van Wagenen, a parent and signee of the complaint sent to the state Board of Education, emphasized the aim is to help all children receiving a public education.
“Our concern is not only for our own children, and is not only for children in special education, but is for all children in Darien Schools,” Van Wagenen stated in a letter to this newspaper’s editor. “Parent involvement, transparency and communication, and checks on the power of individual administrators to be able to change policy without the input of other teachers, administrators, lawyers and parents is essential to maintaining the thriving district that we have entrusted to educate our children.”
Even in the face of the complaint, the district still appears to be fighting dirty, according to some parents. As soon as the complaint was filed, parents told the Times that the schools embarked on a campaign of “intimidation and retaliation.”
“There is evidence there has been retaliation in regards to this,” one parent said. “Parents are concerned… and don’t want their names out there.”
Claims that meetings were rescheduled to make it more difficult for parents to attend have been made, along with other instances involving the district “bullying” parents and using their children’s educational situations as leverage to prevent backlash, one parent said.
Parents tried to resolve the issue by going to the Board of Education, but those attempts fell on deaf ears, parents said.
“To avoid potential embarrassment for the district, parents requested a meeting with the Board of Education on three separate occasions,” Van Wagenen said. “On the last occasion, parents included a list of questions covering the areas on the memo. The Board of Education never responded to parents’ requests. Feeling that we had no further recourse, parents decided, as a group, to file a complaint with the state.”
Betsy Hagerty-Ross, Board of Ed chairman, could not be reached for comment. Superintendent Falcone declined to comment, saying only that he “respects the legal process.” Board member Morgan Whittier also declined to comment, but said that he has “the highest regard for Dr. Falcone’s integrity.”
Read the full story in this week’s print edition of The Darien Times, on newsstands Thursday, March 28.