Navigating Local Education for Students with Special Needs in Connecticut

in In the Region

There are 77,000 students in the state of Connecticut with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), nearly 15% of the total student population of about 530,000 in 2018-19, according to the State Department of Education.

For students with various disabilities that can impact their learning in a traditional school environment, an IEP is a written agreement between a school district and a family that provides a modified plan of education, services and resources.

“It is supposed to be everyone looking at the information and making a decision about what is appropriate for the child together,” said John Flanders, the executive director of the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center. “That doesn’t always happen.”

For many of those students – and their families – the path to the best possible educational opportunities and support is a bumpy one. The center receives about 4,000 calls every year from parents seeking help as they hit one of those ‘bumps’ in the road, and the center’s mission is to educate and support parents so they can effectively participate in the IEP discussion and decision-making,

Inclusion or cost savings

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (2004), a revision of the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act, gives preference to outcomes that keep students in the same classroom they would attend, with or without disability. It’s a policy based on a principle of inclusion. The act requires that student be educated in the “least restrictive environment,” possible.

“You want to have a good integration of kids with disabilities into the community, it’s good for them and good for the other kids too,” Flanders said. “Based off IDEA, you educate the student in the classroom where she would be if she didn’t have a disability, unless it isn’t possible for them to be there.”

Flanders explained that you begin assessing each option of assistance beginning with the least restrictive – adding a paraprofessional educator to work with the student – and working your way up through breakout sessions with a specialist, time in a resource room and out-placement in an alternative school or residential facility.

“One of the things we have tried to do for many years, and I think most districts do this, is to keep kids in-house. The best educational experience a kid can get is with your peers from the community,” said Ian Neviaser, superintendent of schools in Lyme-Old Lyme. “I guess it is considered an expansion of the concept of inclusion which is the theory that special education students learn best when integrated into regular education classrooms.”

But it’s not clear that the theory of inclusion actually supports the idea that students receive the best education within the communities where they live. At many local board of education meetings – including Old Saybrook, Region 4 and Lyme-Old Lyme — in recent months the idea of keeping students in-district has been discussed more as an opportunity for cost-savings.

“What can we do to bring these students back in-district, is there anything we can add?” asked Eileen Baker, a member of the board of education in Old Saybrook at the September 10 meeting.

If a district is able to retain these students, it can to avoid the added costs of tuition and busing to out-placement schools such as LEARN in Niantic.

“Many people, if you’re looking at the cost and you don’t know the details of the students and you don’t know their needs as a board of education member might, just look at cost,” Neviaser said. “It’s a really expensive line item, is there something we can do in district to support this kid instead?”

With special education, one student with complex needs significantly impact an entire school district budget.

“It’s the quarter of a million-dollar kid moves into town problem,” Flanders said. “It can be a very challenging situation and it’s hard because schools start putting together budgets and approve them in March and so then you have X number of dollars to do everything for the next year and sometimes the situation changes. That quarter of a million-dollar kid moves into town in June.”

In such situations, it’s a challenge for a school district to budget to send a student to a specialized school, especially after investing in special services within the district.

“Our special education teachers are trained in a variety of disabilities,” said Melissa Dougherty, the director of special services in Lyme-Old Lyme. “We have a speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, physical therapist and school psychologist.”

Some districts, like Lyme-Old Lyme and Old Saybrook, opt to provide the special services — others choose instead to rely on out-placements.

“There are a lot of families who feel that the school is not doing an appropriate job for their child and are looking for their child to be sent to another facility. On the flip side there are schools that feel that they don’t have the capacity to provide the services,” Flanders said. “In these situations, it is cheaper and easier to find a place to send the student then to hire the expertise that you need to.”

What money can buy

Parents or guardians negotiate an IEP with their local school district — also known as the local education agency (LEA) — often without outside support, and without bringing Regional Education Service Centers, such as LEARN that provides special education and medical professionals to schools across southeastern Connecticut as well as outplacement options, into the conversation.

“The school or parents can bring anybody they want to who has knowledge about the subject, but it is hard to find doctors that will take two hours out of their day. What parents should do is to document what they know about the student,” Flanders said. “Document, document, document everything to support their decision.”

Families with more resources, and who are able to afford legal advice, can bring a lawyer to represent the family in the IEP meeting, not only to advocate for the child’s educational needs, but also to seek a refund educational expenses.

“Some families are able to afford to send their child to the specialized school first and get refunded by the district later,” Flanders said. “That’s great for families that can afford it.”

But for many families the process can take years to obtain the services they believe are best for their child, a problem compounded (as the name suggests) by the fact that each IEP is tailored to the child.

How a disability is defined in IDEA is vague and can encompass everything from behavioral problems to autism to dyslexia to blindness. And an IEP is a fluid plan based on information on-hand and influenced by the funding of the school district and the family.

“It runs the gamut, it can cover any sort of special needs,” Neviaser said. “Some students with disabilities can be in AP classes where as others struggle academically, but may want to be in art or music classes with typical peers. Some need special medical attention and some it is constantly changing.”

Flanders described it as “an educational determination as opposed to a diagnosis. You are supposed to have as much evaluation and observation of the student as appropriate based off what the experts say and then come to a joint decision of what to do.”

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