GREENWICH — When the state ruled in her young son’s favor and found the Greenwich Public Schools had broken the law, Audra O’Donovan expected meaningful change.
But the special education parent and co-founder of the Special Education Advisory Council, who had filed a complaint with the state after the district denied one of her three children a comprehensive evaluation, O’Donovan said she was dismayed when even the state mandate didn’t move the needle.
“Our PPS (Pupil Personnel Services, which oversees special education) department refused to follow the corrective action and brought my family to due process,” she said during public comments of Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting. “Which basically means they sued me. I was forced to hire an attorney for my 7-year old son.”
According to O’Donovan, the state Department of Education again intervened and mandated an evaluation of her son. Several weeks later, while attending a Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meeting — where parents and staff negotiate the provisions for a special education student as codified in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) — for another of her children, she was told that her son was exited from special education. The mandated evaluation showed he didn’t need special education services, the district said, despite the parents’ protests.
“My husband and I felt powerless and that our innocent children were the victims once again,” O’Donovan told the school board. “Retaliation, bullying and disregard for the law is very evident in Greenwich Public Schools. … There must be consequences for those who violate the law.”
She was one of several parents who spoke at the meeting, as special education families, Board of Education members and administrators had their first opportunity to respond to a recently released special education review that highlights the challenges in Greenwich’s schools.
For some special education parents, the document, compiled by Tennessee-based education consulting firm Key2Ed over the 2019-20 school year, reaffirms the longstanding distrust and inadequate nature of special education services. The study, which included interviews with 99 parents, staff and administrators, also sheds light on the concerns of teachers, who, among other things, said that at times they feared retribution from district administrators and were under resourced to provide mandated services.
The aim of the review, said Joyce Little, founding partner of Key2Ed, was to reduce conflict and improve communication between families and educators involved in the special education process. Areas of positive and negative work were identified. Little and Cassie Velasquez, a managing partner of Key2ed, were careful to point out the review produced anecdotal observations and was not a thorough, full-fledged study of the PPS department.
According to Velasquez, the study found pockets where the district was performing well, and others that needed improvement.
Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones said that some of the actionable items laid out by the report — such as an informational website to edify parents on the special education process and regulations — could be easily implemented. Others, including a remodeling of the district’s Response to Intervention (RTI), the process by which special education students are identified, could take up to three years, Jones said.
Special education parents who spoke at the meeting described the document as a damning commentary on the district’s services, confirming tensions that have been simmering for years, or even decades, and that have begun to boil over recently.
“The feedback from those interviews is nothing short of devastating to this district,” said Jennifer Kutai, one of five district parents who sat on the Key2Ed task force panel. Kutai, like O’Donovan, told the school board she had to seek intervention at the state level last year when the district declined to offer her daughter 75 hours of tutoring owed to her as part of her IEP.
According to Kutai, there were positives that emerged from the process, with parents, staff and administrators finding consensus on identifying the issues facing the district. But too few parents were involved, she said, wondering whether the district and school board would use the results of the Key2Ed document to enact change.
“The question is, what plan of action will this Board of Education take now that you have in writing that you are violating students’ rights?” Kutai added.
Brian Peldunas, president of the district’s Parent Teacher Advisory Council, said the results were further cause for independence in an upcoming full-scale audit of the district’s special education department, which began this week and will be conducted by Public Consulting Group, a Boston-based consulting firm.
“That report (Key2Ed) makes evident the need for strict and total independence of the consultants during their review,” Peldunas said. “This may be the last opportunity we have to rebuild trust.”
Board of Education members, too, expressed their consternation.
Karen Hirsh, a member of the PCG audit steering committee, said she was “gutted” after reading the report. She was especially alarmed at teacher complaints of not having ample time for Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meetings and of confusion over the details of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), which mandate the district’s educational provisions to special education students.
And Peter Sherr, who has served on the board for nine years, during which time several studies of the district’s special education services have been completed, questioned whether there was a management issue in the department. He asked Little bluntly to assess Greenwich in relation to the other districts throughout the country with which Key2Ed has worked.
“I don’t know that you’re the worst we’ve ever seen, I don’t know that you’re the best we’ve ever seen,” Little said. “If there was one thing that we could fix for you all, it would be communication … across the board.”
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