COLCHESTER — An independent review of the town’s special education program has identified a number of concerns regarding organization, staff retention, communication with parents and the measurement of student outcomes.
Those and other concerns were shared by several Colchester parents, and education advocates, who spoke at length with CT Examiner to express a deep frustration with the district’s willingness to provide an adequate education for the town’s children with special education needs.
Of the district’s approximately 2,300 students, about 15 percent, or 360 students, are classified as special education students – close to the state average.
One parent, Tina Pappalardo, told CT Examiner that her son, Giovanni, has not received services from the town’s public schools since summer 2021. Giovanni was diagnosed with autism and is considered non-verbal.
According to Pappalardo, her most recent challenge with the school district began in the midst of the pandemic with the closure of Giant Steps, a school in Fairfield that her 17-year-old son was attending.
Pappalardo and a group of other parents with children at Giant Steps helped found another school, which Giovanni attended from winter 2020 until June 2021.
But, according to Pappalardo, the district has made it impossible for her son Giovanni to attend the school the following year.
Included in her son’s Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, were recommendations by the district that her son attend one of three schools outside of the district, including one school located in Rhode Island.
Pappalardo does not believe that any of those schools were equipped to support her son’s complex needs.
When the district finally agreed to send Giovanni to the school she’d helped found, Pappalardo said the proposed agreement contained a clause that would have terminated the agreement if her child missed school — for any reason — for more than four days.
“It’s really crazy because, you know, this had occurred during the pandemic and schools will tell you not to even come in if you even have a cough, a cold,” she said.
So Pappalardo kept her son home.
Since summer 2021, Giovanni has not received any of the services that are required by his IEP, including occupational therapy, speech therapy and a paraeducator to work with him one-on-one in the classroom, as well as an electronic communication device.
“We need to ensure that, moving forward, this is done differently,” said Pappalardo.
A second Colchester parent, who spoke to CT Examiner on condition of anonymity, said she had asked the district for three years, without success, for an evaluation of her son’s special education needs.
By her account, the district at first told her that her son was too young to be tested, and then that they wanted to put off the evaluation because of COVID. She eventually hired an outside neuropsychologist to evaluate her son on the advice of a special education teacher who was tutoring him after school.
After a 10-month wait to see a provider accepting HUSKY insurance, she said her son was diagnosed with ADHD, dyslexia and possible childhood dyspraxia.
But when she brought this evaluation to the district, by her account, she was told that an in-house evaluation was needed, because some students “don’t test well.”
She also says that the district had scheduled a planning and placement meeting for her son without providing the five days notice required by law. She said that when they called her on the day of the meeting, she wasn’t even aware it had been planned.
“I’m new to this. I don’t know any of this,” said the parent. “I’ve never had a child with a learning disability before until now. And I don’t know what my rights are. I don’t know what the laws are.”
Reflecting on these and other complaints, one education advocate who has worked with multiple districts, including Colchester, told CT Examiner that she felt parents of special education students are generally not given adequate guidance to understand what they are entitled to under the law.
“Parents aren’t given the education that they need to be informed advocates for their own children,” she said. “And so they’re intimidated and they don’t speak up and then their children don’t get the services they need.”
In total, CT Examiner spoke with seven parents and three education advocates — people who are hired by parents to help parents navigate the special education system, accompany them in special education meetings and educate them about their legal rights. We agreed to provide anonymity in a number of cases, given that in some cases the children and advocates continue to be involved with the district.
Among the complaints raised by local parents, and advocates, is a refusal to conduct evaluations or accept outside evaluations needed for eligibility for special education services, unilateral changes to special education plans, a lack of proper notice for meeting times, children receiving excessive guidance on assignments meant to be completed independently and a failure to provide children with necessary services.
“More bang for their buck”
In December, Colchester Public Schools contracted with an outside consultant, InCompliance LLC, for $24,000 to review the district’s special education program.
Superintendent Jeffrey Burt told CT Examiner that the district decided to hire the outside firm after completing an internal review of the special education program in the fall. He said that there were things the district wanted to improve, and that they wanted an outside consultant to give them a sense of what direction the district should take.
“Sometimes when you’re in the middle of something, it’s difficult to see what you’re not doing or you are doing well. So really, it was just an attempt to bring in some outside help … and the point of that would be to do some long-term and short-term goals on how we can improve our practices,” said Burt.
A few months later, in March, Colchester’s Director of Pupil Services and Special Education Kathleen Perry voluntarily resigned and according to a severance agreement provided by the district remains on a paid leave of absence until June 30.
Burt would not comment on the reasons for Perry’s departure, but she left a previous position with North Kingstown, RI public schools,where she was assistant director of Pupil Personnel Services, after a vote of no confidence by the local teachers union.
Sam Norman, the head of the teachers union in Colchester Public Schools, declined to comment on whether the union in Colchester had been planning to hold a vote of no-confidence on Perry.
A history of complaints
But the concerns about the quality and availability of special education in Colchester Public Schools were apparent years before Perry’s arrival, when Katherine Shaughnessy oversaw the program for the district. She was hired as director of pupil personnel services and special education in 1994.
In 2015, a group of local parents, including Pappalardo, formed the “Concerned Parent Group of Colchester,” in response to their dissatisfaction with Shaughnessy. The group’s website includes complaints by parents alleging an atmosphere of hostility and changes to special education plans that had not been agreed upon in meetings.
In response to those complaints, the district undertook an internal review, and decided not to extend Shaughnessy’s contract. She left the district at the end of 2015.
The district then brought in a new special education director, Kelly McNamara, who stayed in the position through the 2017-18 school year. Perry joined the district in August 2018.
With Perry’s departure in June, the district will begin its search for a new director for special education, its fourth hire in less than 10 years. The recent report by InCompliance LLC expressed concern about the high turnover rate in the director position.
The report also noted that of the 27 special education teachers employed by the district, “nearly half” have been in the district less than four years, and 1 in 5 have been in the district two years or fewer.
While the district has increased its number of paraprofessionals working in special education — from about 54.5 positions in 2011-12 to 62 this year, the report warned that the district is overly relying on paraprofessionals to support students in the classroom, which “does little to promote student independence.”
Tracy Sinclair, an assistant clinical professor of special education at the UConn Neag School of Education, told CT Examiner that while paraprofessionals could be a great support, they shouldn’t replace special education teachers.
“I love the support of paraprofessionals and they can really just help students blossom in so many ways … but they do not have the level of training that special education teachers do,” Sinclair said. “I think sometimes districts … look at that cost benefit analysis and say, well, we can get three paras or four paras, whatever the cost is for one special education teacher, and see that as more bang for their buck almost.”
Sinclair said that special education tends to be an area with a high rate of turnover, and the InCompliance report noted that there is a shortage of special education teachers in the state.
But the report also outlined four reasons for the cause of teacher turnover in Colchester: lack of support from the Pupil Services office, the inability to make decisions because of “mixed messages” from the Pupil Services office, a lack of professional development and few opportunities to regularly meet with colleagues within the district.
Not “part of the team”
The InCompliance report also noted a disproportionate number of parent complaints regarding the Pupil Services Office, compared to overall positive interactions with the administrators at their schools.
“[Parents] expressed frustration with information that doesn’t always get communicated readily, decisions being deferred and phone calls not returned. The parents interviewed expressed feeling overwhelmed by the PPT process in general, and did not feel as though they were part of the team,” according to the report.
Parents and advocates told CT Examiner that Perry created an environment of confrontation during meetings about their children’s special education plans. They said that she also insisted on bringing attorneys to these meetings, which the parents saw as an intimidation tactic.
Julie Swanson, a special education advocate who has represented parents in districts across Connecticut, including Colchester, told CT Examiner that bringing attorneys into special education meetings can be seen as intimidation, especially when parents themselves don’t have an attorney. But Swanson also said that attorneys can help a school district stay within the bounds of the law.
According to Swanson, the struggle among parents to obtain special education services for their child is “not uncommon,” but when a group of parents recognizes that they are having similar negative experiences, it merits investigation.
“I think when it gets to the point where a group of people who are experiencing the same, what feels to be injustices and unfair treatment, that that is a pattern,” said Swanson.
Burt said he was unable to comment on specific parental complaints, but that the district brings attorneys into special education meetings on a case-by-case basis, generally when the concerns are more complex, and that attorneys can bring a greater level of experience with special education law into the room.
Burt also said that settlement agreements — legal agreements between districts and parents that are used to resolve disputes — are entered into on a case-by-case basis.
Sinclair said that, in her experience, when a district is entering into settlement agreements, something is already wrong.
“Speaking from personal experience, I find that settlement agreements happen when a district is not compliant with procedure,” said Sinclair. “When a district happens to go that far and a parent wins a settlement, it’s considered [that] they’re not providing … a free and appropriate public education.”
Swanson encouraged parents who are having problems in a district to bring their complaints to the state Department of Education or the local Board of Education. She said parents can also engage in what she called “forensic accounting” — looking at how much legal services are costing the district, and then doing a cost-benefit analysis.
“It’s your tax dollars that are paying for your children’s education. So if in some way, shape or form, you think that’s being abused and parents are being treated differently than you need to organize together as a group and take action,” she said.
Questioning student progress
Kathie Collins-Voiland, a Colchester parent, wrote in a March 16 letter to the Board of Education that she had decided to end her child’s special education plan, switching instead to a 504 plan, which allows a student to receive educational accommodations in a regular classroom setting.
“Since October, I have had several [special education planning meetings] with the team and yet my daughter continues to receive work that is far below grade level, not within the scope of the IEP and comes with no direct, explicit instruction,” Collins-Voiland wrote. “My child feels demeaned, cheated, frustrated and hopeless. Despite my best efforts and countless meetings and letters, nothing has changed.”
Another Colchester parent who spoke with CT Examiner on condition of anonymity said that, contrary to claims made by the district, her daughter was not meeting performance targets outlined in her IEP.
Her concerns are supported by a math education specialist who completed an independent evaluation for the family in 2019, that was provided to CT Examiner.
The evaluation referenced “multiple questions” about how the assignments were graded and “possible prompting” from an adult.
Although the district reported that the student was earning grades of 76 percent or higher on her assignments, the evaluator noted that in his one-on-one assessments of her, she “did not come close to replicating” those scores.
Consultants for InCompliance said that of the records they reviewed, there was a general overarching lack of data showing how well special education students had met the short-term goals outlined in their IEPs.
An IEP is required to include specific academic goals for a child’s progress that can be measured through objective assessments. But the InCompliance report found that in Colchester, information regarding children’s performance was “wordy,” unspecific to the goals in the IEP, and “lacking empirical data” to back up how well the student was said to be performing.
Sinclair said that empirical measures are critical because they provide a starting point for intervention and offer evidence of a student’s progress.
In the case of Colchester, InCompliance noted that goals meant to be completed in a specific year were sometimes repeated in a student’s IEP over multiple years, a practice that Sinclair called “really problematic.”
“That is an indication of, either their teaching methods aren’t working and they’re having to use the same goals because the student is not making progress from year to year, or they’re not accurately assessing the student,” she said.
Burt said that the state of Connecticut is in the process of rolling out a new data system and format for IEPs, which he said he believed would help address some of the concerns around lack of specificity around IEP goals and objectives. All Colchester staff, he said, would receive training for the new system.
“This is kind of an opportune moment to retool some of the way in which we do business,” said Burt.
“We want to keep our kids”
InCompliance also noted that federal funding for special education in Colchester, as in many other districts, has decreased since 2014. And while state funding is supposed to cover any cost to a district that is more than 4.5 times the district’s per-pupil expenditure (roughly $84,000 in Colchester) the state has consistently underfunded the grant.
This year, the district received about $150,000 less than called for in state funding formulas for excess special education costs — a shortfall that falls on local taxpayers.
However, Burt said that the district budgets special education without taking into account state and federal funds. This way, he said, the district doesn’t end up in a deficit regardless of how much they receive from the state and federal government. The InCompliance report praised the district for its “fiscal responsibility” in light of the funding shortfalls.
The report also praised the district for the involvement of school administrators in special education and its development of “a continuum” of services, including “specialized in-district programming.” Burt said that the district’s special education program for students between the ages of 18 and 22 was their “biggest success story” and a way that they were able to keep students in the community.
“When we do have programs in house, ultimately we want to keep our kids. We want to keep them in the community. We wanted to keep them in our schools,” he said.
InCompliance suggested that the district make additional efforts to involve parents in the special education process.The report recommended that the district create a forum to educate parents and hear concerns, and invest federal special education funds into parent training.
Pappalardo told CT Examiner that she wants parents to have more say in the district’s special education program. Two Colchester parents claimed not to have received the initial invite to participate in parent focus groups conducted by InCompliance.
Dr. Michael Regan, a consultant with InCompliance, said in an email to CT Examiner that the district had provided him with the names of parents who had indicated to the Office of Pupil Services that they were interested in participating in the focus group. Regan said out of the thirteen parent names provided by the district, they reached out to eight, and just two participated. He said the consultants held a second meeting and six parents participated.
Asked by CT Examiner how they would like to see the special education program changed in Colchester, the parents answered that they wanted their concerns heard and a more collaborative relationship with the district.
In March, Pappalardo sent a letter to the Board of Education requesting a meeting about the special education program. She said she has not yet received a response.
“It’s not even about what I can obtain for my child. It’s about systemic change. I believe wholeheartedly [that] what is occurring here is an injustice. It’s not civil. It’s inhumane,” said Pappalardo.
One of the parents asked to be part of the hiring and evaluation of any future special education directors — a request that was also a recommendation in the InCompliance report.
She also asked that the Board of Education allow the parents to hire a liaison to “participate in [special education meetings] as a neutral party.”
Burt told CT Examiner that the district planned to invite parents to participate in the hiring of the new special education director through a series of interviews – a process used last year for the hiring of the assistant director.
He said that the district was ready to work with parents and move forward.
“We are looking forward to improving our systems and improving our practices and really that long range vision of – how do we become a better district overall,” he said.
Perry did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
The Board of Education will hold a special meeting at 5:30 pm tonight to discuss parent feedback regarding the special education program.