STAMFORD — The mother of a Westhill senior diagnosed with autism has filed a complaint with the state’s Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities accusing the district of failing to protect her son from numerous incidents of bullying and sexual harassment, and of failing to provide him with the special education he is entitled to by law.
“He has been physically attacked, verbally assaulted, sexually harassed, cyberbullied and stalked … followed to the bathroom. I have seen the footage myself,” Nataliya Trofort, the mother, told the Stamford Board of Education at a meeting on Jan. 24.
Trofot alleges that these failures on the part of Stamford schools eventually led her son, a bright student who can speak four languages and dreams of work as a railroad engineer, to have a mental breakdown – hitting his head repeatedly – forcing him to miss classes, and suffer academically.
In a formal response, lawyers for the district categorically denied the vast majority of the allegations, and questioned the commission’s jurisdiction to investigate the case.
In a Jan. 24 meeting of the Stamford Board of Education, the student, Elijah, his mother, father and sister all spoke about the difficulties that he faced while attending Westhill High School.
According to the complaint, in Nov. 2020, during Elijah’s sophomore year of high school, when he was learning Spanish, two students who were fluent speakers made fun of him in the boys’ bathroom, videotaped him speaking Spanish, and then posted the video on SnapChat.
His sister, Alexandra Trofort, told members of the board that she learned about the incident in a text message from a Westhill high school student.
“I was furious. Furious at the bullies and even more furious at the administrators who did nothing to protect him or hold those that hurt him accountable,” Alexandra Trofort said.
According to Nataliya Trofort, the school did little to discipline the bullies or to protect her son.
In its response to the complaint, the district said that school personnel “did not see evidence that Mr. Trofort was humiliated” and decided that what happened should not be considered “bullying.” Nataliya Trofort asked for a two-week suspension and community service for the students, but the district “felt that an apology was appropriate.”
A year later, according to the complaint, a different group of students showed Elijah pornographic material over FaceTime and told him to take out his “big black penis” and masturbate on camera.
The district said they reported the incident to law enforcement through the Stamford School Resource Officers and later met with Nataliya Trofort, the school resource officer and the assistant principal. According to the district’s response, the officers later confirmed the identity of the students who allegedly bullied Elijah and “instructed them to have no contact with Mr. Trofort going forward.”
According to Nataliya Trofort, one of the students involved was later elected as a class officer.
Asked about the allegations, Michael Fernandes, the district’s associate superintendent for intervention and student support, told CT Examiner that “reports of alleged bullying and other negative behaviors are taken extremely seriously.” Ferandes said that these reports are investigated by school administration, and that parents receive a letter summarizing the findings of the investigation.
But Trofort told CT Examiner that she never received summary letters for either incident.
Trofort also told the board in January that she had contacted the board and had not received any response. Trofort said that when she reached out to Stamford mayor, Caroline Simmons, she referred her back to the administration to respond.
According to Trofort, the bullying continued this year. She alleges her son was again videotaped in November in the boys’ bathroom, and that in January he was punched in the face by a student.
In a summary letter about the allegations, dated Feb. 15 and signed by Principal Michael Rinaldi, Rinaldi informed Trofort that a review of video cameras and interviews with teachers and students did not produce enough evidence to substantiate any of her allegations.
“I ask that Elijah see me [or other staff] immediately should he feel intimidated or uncomfortable at school so that we can take appropriate action,” Rinaldi wrote in the letter. “Retaliatory behavior will not be tolerated.”
Elijah told members of the board of education that the bullying was affecting his mental health and his ability to complete his schoolwork.
“I feel ashamed, anxious and afraid to face my bullies every day at Westhill. Because of this I have a hard time focusing on my work and sleeping at night. I don’t feel safe at school,” Elijah told the board.
Elijah’s parents recounted the emotional toll of the bullying on their son.
“We witnessed his emotional decline year after year. We were heartbroken after we learned that this video — folks, there’s no way to describe it as a father,” Elijah’s father, Francky Trofort, told board members. “I’m here to tell you as a dad that enough is enough.”
An appropriate education for special needs
When Elijah began 9th grade at Westhill, by many measures he was succeeding academically, earning As and Bs in his classes, despite coping with a variety of challenges, including anxiety and thoughts of self-harm.
But Nataliya Trofort worried that Elijah was not challenged enough by a special program for autistic children, and at her urging he was placed in “co-taught” classes — classes in which a special education teacher and a general education teacher teach simultaneously — in his sophomore year.
Trofort said she wanted Elijah to begin attending classes without the help of a paraeducator, with the goal of gradually becoming more independent.
Elijah’s Individual Education Plan records that he was coping with increasing anxiety during his sophomore year and at the start of his junior year, anxiety that was exhibited at home but not recorded at school.
Nataliya Trofort alleges in her complaint that her son endured “constant bullying” during his four years at Westhill, a problem that she says was compounded by the district’s failure to accommodate his special education needs – allegations that the district categorically denies.
She describes a pattern of the district withholding documents and ignoring and dismissing her requests during meetings to discuss Elijah’s educational plan.
“Throughout every IEP document, whatever I ask for service, for extra time or testing. The answer and the theme throughout is ‘Parent request denied. ‘Parent request denied.’ ‘Parent request denied,’” Trofort told members of the board.
At start of Elijah’s junior year, according to Nataliya, the district mistakenly (and without her knowledge) placed her son first in mainstream classes without additional support.
Although he was soon returned to co-taught classes, she said, he had lost ground, and was failing. Trofort said she found out about the error only after talking to her son’s teachers, who she said expressed concern about how much he was struggling.
The district denies that Elijah was placed in regular classes, and in an email from Assistant Principal Claudia Obas to then-Director of Special Education and Related Services Wayne Holland, Obas wrote that Elijah’s IEP was “followed to the letter.”
In November of the same year, Trofort wrote to Obas saying that she was concerned about Elijah’s progress. She said his grades had dropped and that he was “depressed,” which she attributed to his academic struggles. She requested additional tutoring to help him catch up.
Instead, the district’s special education staff said they wanted to return him to classes in the program for autistic students, saying that they needed to address his emotional difficulties.
“My professional recommendation will be to return Elijah to the [autism spectrum disorder] program where he was thriving. During [his] time in the program your son was emotionally regulated and most importantly, HAPPY!” Obas wrote in a November 9 email to Trofort.
She also pushed back against Trofort’s earlier insistence on placing Elijah in co-taught classes without the help of a paraeducator.
“The Team explained to you several times that your request was not conducive to the needs of your son but you wanted to try it, it hasn’t work[ed] and Elijah is suffering for it.”
In Dec. 2021, a month after the bullying incident involving FaceTime, and with Elijah struggling in his coursework, school staff convened a meeting with Trofort to discuss their concerns about Elijah’s mental health and academics.
According to a summary included with his IEP, Trofort was told that Elijah’s teachers thought his classes were moving too fast for him and that the way the content was being taught was “over student’s ability to think abstractly.” They suggested bringing back the paraeducator and modifying his schedule, placing him in an English class specifically for autistic students and changing his math class.
Trofort said she agreed reluctantly.
“I was against the wall … We were all under stress. He was screaming. He wanted to hurt himself. It was very tense,” she told CT Examiner.
What happened next is disputed by the district and Trofort.
According to a Dec. 14 email from district social worker Leisha Prescod to Obas, on Dec. 9, Elijah began screaming in the cafeteria and threw a water bottle. When the social worker intervened, she found that Elijah was “experiencing auditory and visual hallucinations.” According to the email, she made a referral to 211 the same day.
But Nataliya Trofort told CT Examiner that she didn’t find out about the incident until five days later, on Dec. 14, when the school resource officers drove Elijah from school to the emergency room in a police car.
Prescod wrote in the Dec. 14 email that she had evaluated Elijah at the time and found he was “hearing voices telling him to shoot himself.”
Elijah was kept out of school for the remainder of the month of December, for reasons that are disputed. His mother claims that the district refused to allow him back into school without an evaluation from an outside psychologist. The district claims that a therapist who saw Elijah regularly at the non-profit Child Guidance Center had recommended he remain out of school because of his worsening mental health.
In its response to Trofort’s complaint, the district included a letter from Elijah’s therapist asking that Elijah be excused for his absences between Dec. 15 and Dec. 23, saying that he remained at home “in order to focus on his mental health and alleviating current symptoms.”
Trofort says that she did not authorize the therapist to write that letter, and shared with CT Examiner a release from Stamford Hospital clearing Elijah to return to school on Dec. 15.
During his time away from school in December, his mother said, Elijah would cry and look out the window when the bus came, asking whether he was not allowed to return to school because he was a criminal.
At the end of December, Nataliya Trofort wrote a letter to Wayne Holland, then the district’s Director of Special Education and Related Services, threatening legal action if Elijah was not allowed to return to school. He returned in early January. But Trofort said that when she requested additional tutoring to help him catch up from the time he missed during his suspension, that was denied. He was placed back in co-taught classes with a paraprofessional.
“While this has been helpful, the failing grades my son previously received in the regular classes at the start of the school year, following co/taught classes negatively impacted his overall grades, self- esteem, and mental health,” Trofort wrote in the complaint.
In January, Elijah told members of the Board of Education that, with the exception of Spanish, he had been placed in classes specifically for students on the autism spectrum, which he said were not challenging enough for him.
“I am bored and not challenged at all. It’s not fair,” Elijah said.
A member of the Board of Education responds
Jackie Pioli, a member of the Board of Education and an advocate for special education students, told CT Examiner that while she could not speak about specific cases, she has seen problems in general across the state for special education students.
“There’s a huge issue with special ed in general,” Pioli, who stressed she was speaking as an individual and not for the board, told CT Examiner. “Stamford isn’t unique.”
Stamford had faced three major changes in its special education program this year, according to Pioli, hiring a new special education director, hiring new legal counsel, and piloting a new statewide system for special education documents.
Pioli suggested at a recent board meeting that the district partner with the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center, a statewide nonprofit offering support for families of children with disabilities.
According to Pioli, Superintendent Tamu Lucero seemed “very receptive” to the idea.
Trofort is asking that Elijah repeat 12th grade, and for the district to place him at Easton Country Day School, where she said he will be able to receive services like one-on-one tutoring in math and reading and support for speech.
“11th grade was a failure. And [the Stamford School District] just wants to pass him. They passed him on subjects that he failed [in] 11th grade and 12th grade,” she alleges, though his transcript does not reflect a record of failure.
Trofort said that the district’s transition program, which teaches students vocational skills through the age of 22, did not align with her son’s interests. She said she wants Elijah to be able to attend college so that he can pursue his dream of working as a train engineer.
“We don’t want our son to be only offered a janitorial transition program,” Nataliya Trofort said at the board of education meeting. “He wants to be an engineer working on trains. He does not want to clean them.”
This story has been updated to clarify that Pioli was not commenting directly on the Trofort case or any other specific case.