COLCHESTER — The Board of Education voted on Thursday to form a subcommittee to draft an anonymous survey for parents to share their experiences regarding the district’s special education program. They also voted to schedule an additional meeting after the results of the survey come in to have a more “robust conversation” about parent concerns.
Multiple parents have spoken to CT Examiner about their deep frustration with what they describe as the district’s willingness to provide an adequate education for the town’s children with special education needs. Their complaints include 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.
About five community members attended the Thursday meeting. Three identified themselves as parents, and one attendee identified herself as an education advocate.
Attendees expressed frustration at the lack of notice for the meeting, complaining that while the meeting agenda was time-stamped early Tuesday morning, it was only visible on the town’s website on Thursday.
Board members acknowledged the need to hold a better publicized meeting at a later date.
The board also also expressed a desire to listen to and receive feedback from parents. Some shared their own personal stories either as former special education students or as parents of children with special education needs.
Board member Margo Gignac, who has four children, said that she has a child with an Individualized Education Plan. Gignac also said that when her first child, Rosemary (also a member of the board) needed services, she didn’t know how to approach the process, and as a result, Rosemary got services much later than she should have.
“We didn’t understand a lot of why she was struggling,” said Gignac. “It was just horrible. They did testing, [but] they didn’t do the right tests. So she didn’t qualify for an IEP, but meanwhile, her teachers are going, ‘Oh, she probably won’t make it to the next grade.’”
Gignac said that before Rosemary was able to qualify for special education services, she was spending five hours a night on homework and had given up all her extracurricular activities so that she could earn straight-A’s.
“She’d given up horseback riding. She’d given up violin and given up everything to be a straight-A student. Something’s wrong with this. It’s not right,” said Gignac.
Another board member, Donna Antonacci, said she was prepared to help special education parents in any way she could.
“I’d rather not fight a legal battle when we can just give people services,” said Antonacci.
Parents attending the meeting also expressed a desire to offer input on the hiring of a new special education director. The former Director of Pupil Services and Special Education, Kathy Perry, resigned in March, and is on administrative leave until the end of June.
Board member Mary Tomasi said that the district posted the opening on Monday, and that they were waiting to receive applications.
When asked what they wanted to see in a new special education director, parents expressed a need for someone who would be able to work collaboratively with parents and administrators. Tina Pappalardo, a parent, who attended the meeting as a representative for a group of parents in Colchester with children receiving special education, said she wanted someone who would work with students and teachers rather than just managing things on an administrative level.
“Somebody that’s going to get down into the schools, to walk through the schools and see the children, talk to the teachers. This is so important,” she said.
Deanna Bouchard, an advocate for special education parents in the district, said she wanted a special education program that would encourage special education children to enroll in the post-high school program best to them, even if it means leaving Colchester. The district currently runs a special education program for young adults between the ages of 18 and 22 to help them transition out of high school.
“We encourage our kids to flap their wings and fly. So why is there this position in this town that we want to take them all and bring them in to just keep them here? Maybe it works for some of them, but it doesn’t work for all,” said Bouchard.
Another parent, Jen Cox, said they needed someone who could “bridge the gap” between the special education administration and parents.
“The parents really do feel separate,” she said. “I know a lot. I’m at meetings. I still feel separate, and that makes no sense, because I know the most about my kids.”
Board member Jessica Morozowich said that she was disturbed to hear that some parents felt intimidated and fearful of coming forward and discussing their experiences in the district’s special education program. Bouchard said that having lawyers present in meetings also had the effect of making parents feel uncomfortable.
Board member Chris Rivers said he wanted to make sure that the anonymous survey reached everyone, including parents whose children were no longer in the special education and staff members who have children in the special education program.
Rivers, Marguerite Gignac and Rosemary Gignac will be working on the subcommittee. Members also expressed a desire to solicit feedback from parents about what questions should be included on the survey.
The board has a tentative meeting scheduled in May to review the result of the independent review of the special education program completed by the firm InCompliance on April 11.