GREENWICH – Parents who spoke to CT Examiner about what they say are long standing problems with the town’s special education programs largely backed a new report released by the Greenwich Special Education Advisory Council.
The June 14 report details a variety of concerns including an alleged failure to meet the district’s legal obligations to report the use of restraint and seclusion in schools, special education students languishing in neighborhood schools and requiring transfers to other programs, inadequate and inconsistent communication with parents, “untenable” caseloads leading to the burnout special education staff, and the “silencing” of staff who recommended additional testing or services.
The 24-member council was formed in 2020 by the Greenwich Board of Education at the request of parents, and includes educators, staff, administrators and parents.
The report comes almost three years after current and former council members filed an Oct. 2020 complaint with the state Department of Education claiming that the district was denying special education students their right to a suitable education.
Soon after, the state dismissed the complaint as the allegations did not prove the district was violating state or federal regulations, but the district subsequently commissioned a wholescale audit of their special education program.
Last month, the council presented its annual report to the board and asked officials to make significant changes to the district’s special education programs.
Of the many recommendations from the council, one rang especially true for Camila Carmona, the mother of a 9-year-old International School at Dundee student diagnosed with autism: that district administration should investigate student transfers between Greenwich Public Schools.
The council criticized the lack of adequate special education in some district schools that has forced parents to transfer their children out of neighborhood schools in an effort to provide them with appropriate services.
“Each year several students are forced to leave their neighboring school to be educated at another GPS school. In this new environment we witness these flourish and grow where previously challenging behaviors were present,” the council wrote. “We would like each of these situations investigated by a district administrator to evaluate the cause of the removal and how we can avoid this situation again.”
‘My options are not really options’
In a June call with CT Examiner, Carmona said she realized her son was regressing in reading comprehension, writing and math last year in her neighborhood school, and reached out to his planning and placement team for help. She said that her son was “constantly being pulled out” of class for special education services, which kept him from socializing with peers. Carmona said she had told staff that Dundee was not the right school for him, but that the district had not offered “appropriate solutions.”
“I trusted them with my son’s education, and they have failed to provide him with a FAPE [Free Appropriate Public Education],” Carmona said.
According to documents provided to CT Examiner by Carmona, the district recommended in May that she enroll her son in the Unique Learner Program – a new offering for special education students from third to fifth grade to improve communication skills in addition to academics – available at Cos Cob School in the fall.
But after touring the program Carmona said she felt it would only hinder her son’s progress, given the inclusion of students with differing developmental disabilities and skill levels in the classroom.
“They’re not at the same level of education as he is, and this will only cause him to regress even further. My options are not really options.”
Carmona said she has asked the district, with the help of special education advocate H. Duncan, to place her son at Villa Maria School, a private program for students with specific learning disorders. The district instead began the process of transferring her son to the Unique Learners Program.
Duncan, who assists parents of students with disabilities through her nonprofit Tutor The Bronx, Inc., told CT Examiner that it is alarming that the district could offer “only one type of placement,” for the child.
“If they’re only able to give a certain type of setting to all of the students, then you’re naturally, intrinsically unable to support all learners,” said Duncan in a June call with CT Examiner.
Asked how many special education students were transferred from one district school to another in the 2022-23 school year due to unmet special education needs, Superintendent Toni Jones said the district had “very few children” who transferred schools unless there was a “unique need.”
CT Examiner also asked Jones for the key reasons why students in such cases are transferred.
“It is always the specific needs of the child,” Jones said in an emailed response. “If we can offer a better setting for a parent to consider, like an ADA accessible building, then we always make sure the parents are well informed to make that decision.”
According to Duncan, parents commonly seek out private school placements given limited public school options, but given the additional cost of these programs, districts are typically hesitant to agree to outplacements.
“That’s why they kind of like push and shove. Like they push back on it,” Duncan said. “They don’t want kids to go to private, but yet they’re not changing their ways. That’s a big problem.”
Duncan told CT Examiner that when a district declines to outplace a student, parents often place their child in a private school and then sue the district for reimbursement.
In the 2023-24 budget, the district proposed $5.5 million for out-of-district placements, a 17.5 percent increase over the previous year, and $3.4 million to settle legal claims, a 9 percent increase.
Asked to comment on Carmona’s claims, Chief Officer of Special Education and Student Supports Stacey Heiligenthaler told CT Examiner that the district cannot legally answer questions about specific cases. But generally, she said special education staff make “appropriate placement and evaluation recommendations.”
“Out of district placements are part of the continuum of options that are considered when designing a program to meet individual students’ needs,” Heiligenthaler said in the June email.
A lack of communication
Also highlighted in the council report are claims that communication between staff and parents varies “drastically” between schools.
“Some families receive paperwork before PPT meetings, some receive no paperwork,” the council wrote. “Some schools work with families to exit students from special education while others exit a student without parent input.”
The report alleges that special education staff are “silenced” when they suggest additional services for students.
“It has been reported that when team members determine that a struggling student may benefit from additional testing or services, team members in a number of schools are being silenced and instructed not to bring these ideas to PPT meetings,” the council said.
In a June call with CT Examiner, Jennifer O’Gorman, the mother of a 16-year-old student diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder and previously enrolled at Western Middle School, described years of difficulty communicating with the district regarding her son’s education and care.
After transferring her son from Western to Trinity Catholic Middle School in 2018 in part to cope with bullying, O’Gorman said she had enrolled her son in a variety of private schools, most at her own expense, in an effort to find a program that meets his needs.
O’Gorman said that delays and a lack of transparency from the district had made it more difficult to find an adequate private placement for her son.
After withdrawing her son from a third private school in June 2022, O’Gorman said she reached out to find an appropriate placement at a private therapeutic boarding school. The district decided instead to place him at Greenwich High School. But according to O’Gorman and a subsequent report by the state Board of Education, the district then failed to enroll her son in Greenwich High School.
O’Gorman said she contacted the district on Sept. 1, 2022 and requested a meeting with her son’s planning and placement team to find an alternate private placement, but that the district did not schedule a meeting until Sept. 14.
“From September until when I unilaterally placed him at [his current school], he was home. He had no school. He pulled all the hair out of his head. He pulled all his toenails out. He was a disaster.”
In Nov. 2022 O’Gorman filed a complaint against the district with the state Department of Education, seeking compensation for failing to provide her son with a free appropriate public education. In May, the board agreed and ordered the district to fund one calendar year of tuition at his current placement – an out-of-state residential treatment program.
O’Gorman said she is also filing a discrimination complaint with the state Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities.
She said her goal is to hold the district accountable and to help other parents who may not know the legal ins and outs of the special education system.
“I don’t want this to happen to other people,” O’Gorman said. “I know the laws. I know a lot, and I can’t even imagine people who don’t know what they’re doing.”
Duncan told CT Examiner that she often acts as a translator for parents in meetings because the terminology and jargon used by the district often escapes parents.
“There’s a belief that [parents] are so uninformed, that they can get away with certain things,” Duncan said.
Staff burnout and student restraint
The council’s report attributed a lack of communication with parents in part to overworked special education staff. According to the report, some special education teachers complained that they are “unable to meet the demands of their caseloads,” leaving little time for their additional duties.
“In addition to these caseloads, these educators need to fit in transition planning, PPT prep and meetings, Triennial testing and reporting, communication with team members and parents, support and planning for more involved students and crisis management,” the council reported.
According to the report, special education staff are nearing or already suffering “burnout” given “untenable” caseloads.
In an emailed response to CT Examiner, Superintendent Jones said paraprofessional burnout is “a real issue,” and the district is working hard to support its staff.
Asked about paraprofessional turnover in the district, Jones acknowledged ongoing staffing difficulties.
“Paraprofessional jobs are one of the most challenging to fill in districts across the country, not just in Fairfield County or Connecticut. The pay is below most positions in school systems, yet carries some of the most important work with children,” Jones said. “Greenwich does better than most of our neighboring districts, but it is not easy to fill the positions at $21.88 an hour for Step 1.”
A failure to report restraint and seclusion?
The superintendent also addressed the report’s claim that the district is underreporting incidents of student restraint and seclusion. She said the district “rarely supports” restraint unless a teacher is in physical danger, and does not use seclusion to discipline students.
The report mentioned claims of restraint being used in non-emergency situations.
According to an annual report by the state Department of Education on the use of physical restraint and seclusion, 1,279 special education students were enrolled in Greenwich Public Schools for the 2021-22 school year, and the district reported 11 incidents of seclusion or restraint.
Those numbers are similar to those of West Haven Public Schools – which had 1,158 special education students and reported 18 incidents of restraint or seclusion – but are significantly lower than for similarly-sized districts like Bristol Public Schools, with 116 reported incidents, and Fairfield Public Schools, with 121 reported incidents.
The council recommended that the district clarify what constitutes an emergency situation in regard to restraint, and to write a policy reflecting the district’s claim that it does not engage in student seclusion.