“Parents of children with special needs have suffered enough.”
This statement was one of the first comments made by survey respondents who were asked to offer comments to help the Board of Education as it searches for an interim special education director. This question, the last of three open-ended questions on the survey, drew the most comments — 43% of the printed pages of comments related to this query.
“I hope that we can see that to cheat these parents and their children of their rights and of our help… reflects badly on all of us,” the person continued. “Really, how much money does it cost us individually to help a child and a family be a part of our community?… Shame on those who hired a hatchet person.”
At the Board of Ed’s Oct. 8 meeting, Chairman Betsy Hagerty-Ross said that she expects to make an announcement of the hiring of the interim director by next week. Two unnamed parents assisted in the search for this person, who will report to the Board of Ed.
This reporting structure has raised some eyebrows, however, as there are privacy concerns related to federal laws that protect children with disabilities. Board of Ed members are not education professionals, and some have said this could raise legal issues.
Several survey respondents noted the importance for the board to make swift administrative changes — a need that has gained support since the state found the district broke federal and state laws in two reports issued in July and September. The state found that Darien created illegal training materials, and also illegally changed the education plans of children with special needs.
“A swift change in administration is needed,” one person wrote. “Clean house,” another exclaimed. “Frankly, the current Board [of Ed] should resign en masse,” someone suggested. “You need to seriously consider replacing Dr. Falcone,” said another.
Superintendent Steve Falcone sent a district-wide press release on Monday, Oct. 7, to address concerns expressed by “some members of the public [who] may wonder why no action has been taken,” as far as holding the lawbreakers accountable.
Falcone said he is obliged “to make personnel decisions fairly and in accordance with due process.”
“As I mentioned in my initial response to the report, we take seriously our obligation to hold personnel accountable for any actions taken in violation of the law,” Falcone wrote. “Given these ongoing processes, we have not taken any personnel action to date. However, when and where we determine that individual district employees have made mistakes or engaged in misconduct, we will take appropriate personnel action.”
Attorney Sue Gamm has been hired to see if the district illegally denied services to children with special needs through its intervention program or through other means. Her report is expected to be complete by Oct. 31.
Emotions in the survey ranged from anger to shame to disgust to support, and opinions spanned the spectrum within those responses. One survey respondent said there is “too much coddling of students at the school.”
“Parents need to let students learn and develop — for regular and special ed,” the person continued. “I want a smart director who isn’t beholden to what parents want (i.e. good grades), but what is best for students.”
Other people took the middle ground.
“I think it’s a challenge to provide quality special education to what seems to be an increasing number of students in need,” one person wrote. “In addition to helping our current special ed students, I think consideration needs to be given on how to work with other districts to provide efficient special education in the long term.”
Some offered advice and appeared optimistic about the future of special ed in Darien.
“Believe in the children,” one person advised the Board of Ed. “Never give up hope that what a teacher is doing in the classroom can make [an] impact on a child’s life. Become more proactive in assessing technology… it seems we are only scratching the surface.”
Another person noted the importance of staff support and professional development.
“Staff development should be an issue and should be addressed,” the person wrote. “There should be ongoing communications and/or staff meetings that include teachers and [paraprofessionals] to talk about things that are ‘working’ with students.”
One person, who appeared to be a school staff member, advised the school board to visit the schools and spend time in the classrooms. The person also said that staff “meetings are just not enough time to focus” on collaborating with other teachers.
“Our grade levels never get a chance to think about the whole student and how what you are teaching today will serve them next year, and so on,” the person stated.
Others continued to pit the regular education budget against special education spending, noting the importance of finding a balance “so that the budget is not so heavily weighted toward special ed that other programs suffer.”
Another respondent countered that argument.
“There is a presumption amongst the Darien taxpayers that special education takes away from general education services,” the person stated. “The tendency to stigmatize and isolate special education students as a result is harmful.”
One respondent noted the importance of improving the district’s outreach regarding extra-curricular activities for special ed students.
“Students with special needs are ill-equipped to approach a sign-up desk and feel like part of the team and there should be more assemblies and programs to educate the student body and teachers to include them and make them feel like part of the group,” one person stated.
“Furthermore, as we approach college years, we would like to see a concerted outreach for college counseling, SAT testing and advisory services for special needs [students’] college selections or trade school selections,” the person continued.
One person chose to attack The Darien Times for its coverage of the special education problems rather than offer the Board of Ed advice.
“The Darien Times has done a huge disservice to the Darien special ed program,” the person wrote. “The Times makes it sound as if all [special ed] staff members are uncaring and deliberately and consciously trying to harm these students, which couldn’t be farther from the truth.”
Other were reflective, and said they hoped the school board learned from its mistakes.
“There were many problems last year that were not addressed in a timely manner,” one person stated. “Many of the issues that surfaced could have been stopped earlier and funds could have been saved.”
“Stop being penny-wise and pound-foolish,” another said. “The 2010 [Badway] survey found that giving parents some of the small things they were requesting was not the primary reason for cost increases…”
“Nothing makes parents more upset than seeing a willingness on the part of the Board of Education, the Board of Finance and the administration to spend money on legal fees and salaries for non-working administrators while at the same time resisting spending money on the services that our children need,” one person wrote.
Some said communication problems continue, while others commended the school board for its transparency. Some said they had positive experiences with special ed, while others discussed problems with the program.
Several noted their fear of costs running out of control.
“We are concerned that a relatively few very vocal parents are driving what is being done,” one person said. “Darien spends more than most other towns in the state… We ask the Board [of Ed] to remember that most people don’t support unlimited funding for” special education.
“Darien is a runaway train in terms of size and costs and we are focused on the needs of the minority versus addressing the needs of all,” another person wrote. “The system needs to be fair for all children, not just the ones that are labeled.”
“Do not buckle,” a respondent wrote. “It is important for you to determine who needs what help and what a reasonable goal is at a reasonable expense. It should not be a free for all at the till.”
Still others remained firm in their belief that Darien has a moral obligation to children with special needs.
“I am shocked at the stories that I have heard about the state of special education services in our town,” one person wrote. “It is extremely disappointing as a taxpayer, parent of a child in Darien public schools, and a long time Darien resident, that this town is operating this way — very disappointing.
“Time to start doing what is right for all children in our public schools,” the person continued.
While disagreements over the right path were firmly delineated, one theme remained universal — the Darien Board of Education and district administration have a lot of work ahead.