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Norwalk mom seeks SpEd services ‘owed’ to grown son

A post-it note on Thursday warns visitors away from City Hall room 333, where a Special Education due process was underway.

Correction 4 pm: Goorevitch has been here three months. Updated, 10:50 a.m.: Copy edit.

NORWALK, Conn. — Hours and hours are being spent in City Hall on an unusual hearing spurred by a parent seeking both justice for her son and a spotlight on what she said is a broken Norwalk Special Education process.

It was evident last week, as NancyOnNorwalk sat through just three hours in the lengthy due process hearing, that Arden Church’s 21-year-old son has difficulty reading.

Attorney Marsha Moses, working on behalf of the Special Education Department, on different afternoons queried two specialists about progress they made with Church’s son this Spring.

“He was reading at eighth grade level with assistance,” a specialist from Lindamood Bell, a research-based literacy center, said Thursday, then explaining that the instruction was then shifted back to a fourth or fifth grade level because the young man was running out of time and teachers felt they needed to focus on skills he needed to get along in the world.

Ordinarily, due process hearings are closed to the public. Church has requested that this one be open.

Church’s son turned 21 in April, which means that Norwalk Public Schools was legally mandated to educate him through last June. If he had turned 21 in July, then he would get services for another year, she said.

“He was owed things in his IEP (Individualized Education Program) that he did not get, to this day he has still not gotten,” Church said after Thursday’s proceedings, explaining what she and her lawyer were hoping to achieve with their legal challenge. “So, there is that issue. But also we are trying to show that he didn’t have a free- and appropriate-education in prior years … based on the progress that he made when they he had services that were more appropriate for him. Their position is ‘no, we did this’ and ‘we did that.’ They feel their programs were appropriate and it shows that it truly was not.”

Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education.

Also pertinent is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); Moses and the hearing officer objected Wednesday to the presence of a reporter in the room. Photographs and recording devices were prohibited, they said.

About 10 people were seated around a conference table, including Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch, Moses, Church and her attorney. A man sat at a table in the corner behind them, wearing headphones as he monitored an audio-recording device.

A mother sat watching in another corner.

Moses cross examined a female reading specialist Wednesday, inquiring how much progress Church’s son had made in his last months of instruction, and the meaning of various test results.

The woman said Church’s son was authorized for two hours of instruction but she usually provided an extra half hour as he waited for the bus. She had an assistant, reinforcing the instruction, she said.

The woman said she hadn’t worked on advanced concepts, such as when “i” sounds like “e,” as in the word “stadium,” with the young man. Later, she explained that it’s always a conundrum to decide whether to test or teach, because a test take up two or three days’ worth of time that could be used to teach new skills.

“I felt like there was so much I wanted to teach him and I didn’t want to lose any of that. So I was very strategic,” she said.

They worked from a book on starting a small business because time was running out; she had taught him a lot of phonetic concepts and she was trying to help him with life skills, encouraging him to think about expanding his lawn mowing business, she said.

On Thursday, a male specialist from Lindamood Bell said Church’s son had trouble following simple instructions, which wouldn’t show in a test, and referred to a primer for a 5-year-old.

Three or four mothers sat watching; reportedly seven had attended the morning session. They declined to comment.

The instructor said, “His biggest goal was passing a driver’s test, so that was where things were focused… We started to see a lot more growth in his ability to perceive the size of objects.”

Again, instruction was based on, “What is going to be most practical for (Church’s son) if we don’t see him again after June 30?” the instructor said, referring to fourth and fifth grade science levels.

The hearing, which began Oct. 30, was continued to Monday. Thursday’s session was four hours; Wednesday’s was six hours.

Church said she’s going to release a letter to the editor about Norwalk’s Special Education Department.

“My goal here at this point, is that it is absolutely about my son, getting him services that he deserves and is owed but it’s taken on a life a little bigger than that because there are some parents out there, as was witnessed by the folks in the room, that are getting raked over the coals by a very broken system,” she said. “I am ultimately taking up that cause because it is just wrong – wrong is wrong no matter how you want to paint a happy face on it. This is wrong.”

Her son “had the same IEP goals for years and years and years and years, and he was not making progress,” she said, explaining that progress made more recently with the “right specialists” and other outsourced programs shows that he was shortchanged.

Norwalk’s Special Education Department has been criticized in a series of reports issued by the Capitol Region Education Council (CREC), first in 2008, then in 2012 and 2015.

In 2012, CREC found that Norwalk was operating “a very lean and under-funded special education program,” with a lower ratio of staff to students than other districts in the state in the areas of special education teachers, special education aides, speech and language pathologists, social workers, school psychologists and school nurses.

Parents were dissatisfied with their child’s IEPs, frequently stating they were not followed, or the district failed to notify them that there would be a temporary deviation from an IEP, the 2015 report said.

Norwalk is working to improve its Special Education Department, with $3.3 million in funding to create in-house programs over two years, with more funding expected to continue the effort.

“Although it’s an open hearing, I can’t give any information about the specific young person it’s about, or the specifics of this due process,” Goorevitch said.

However, she said, “Due process hearings happen when everything else has failed. Communication has broken down or there’s a sense of mistrust between the district and the parents, usually the parents are feeling that sense of distrust. If we can’t get to agreement then parents have the right to due process. It tends to be costly, in terms of the number of hours, as well as the people in the process.”

SpEd parents have criticized the district’s hiring of Moses, calling her a very tough, expensive lawyer.

“Moses has been on call, forcing SpEd legal bills to sky rocket while parents are stonewalled from her decisions,” Kim Tromba said in December.

Goorevitch is new to Norwalk, having come here three months ago from New Rochelle, N.Y.

“In 40 years, I typically have had one or two (due process hearings) every two or three years,” she said.

She is “deeply committed” to developing new programs for NPS, in collaboration with parents, to greatly reduce litigation and due process, she said.

“I have learned from my colleagues that Fairfield County is pretty litigious area. … My goal has been, for 40 years, to not find ourselves in this situation, where communication has broken down,” Goorevitch said, explaining that once the hearing officer and the lawyers leave, the district is left to repair its relationship with parents and, “Depending on which side prevails, there is an appeal and It can go through the courts, and it takes a long time to resolve.”

It’s anticipated that 90 percent of disabled students will graduate with a high school diploma but sometimes it takes longer and students with more severe disabilities are entitled to be in school until they are 21, she explained.

There are about 25 post-high school students receiving instruction, typically focused on vocational and independent living topics, and a few students in another program, she said.

Once the student hits 21, the situation changes, she said, explaining that while public schools are required to provide an education, “after that they may be eligible for services through adult providers.”

“It’s very hard to make a seamless transition. No transition is perfect,” she said.

“I had another experience with due process involving a post-secondary disagreement,” she said, with a parent seeking compensatory services after the student reached 21, but, “It’s a very high bar.”

17 comments

Sue Haynie November 13, 2017 at 6:31 am

I don’t know all the details of this story but it’s not too much for a parent to ask that a public school system teach a child to read! And finding out that your child can in fact read, after failing year after year in NPS, made this parent see red. It is the most basic of requests and 95% of ALL children can be taught to read.

Norwalk PS is trying mightily to fix this problem but SPED has intractable problems that can’t be fixed under the current system, like:
• Highly likely that a SPED teacher (and/or General Ed teacher for that matter) who was certified in CT prior to 2013 had no courses in how to teach reading at their college of education (35%+/- SPED kids are SLD/Dyslexic);
• A SPED certification allows for that educator to be considered ‘highly qualified’ to teach Every subject, in Every grade K-12 and in all 13 categories of SPED, this is impossible to do well*(see link of SPED categories);
• Tenured staff can’t be required to get additional training, certification, etc. beyond that mandated in their contract;
• Perennial shortage of Special Ed teachers due to union rules*(see shortage link below);
• School assignment is based on union seniority not student need;
• These are systemic problems with SPED that are typical not just in Norwalk or CT, but nationwide.

Shortage areas: http://www.ct.gov/trb/cwp/view.asp?Q=276124&A=1598
13 categories under IDEA: http://www.specialeducationguide.com/disability-profiles/

Donna Smirniotopoulos November 13, 2017 at 8:41 am

Hard to read without feeling heartbroken for the family and anguished for the educators who have been working against the clock to deliver services without much certainty that the student will derive any practical benefit. Maybe it’s time to rethink IDEA in its entirety. Disable persons and their families need assistance. But it may be unreasonable to burden the public school system with this task. The children most deeply impacted by “failures” in public education might be better served through specialized agencies that deal exclusively with a learning disabled population. Funding is public regardless, but one point of conflict might be avoided if the link between a costly education and local property tax payers were not so direct.

Theoretically, an IEP would spell out reasonable goals clearly. But it may be unrealistic to articulate desired outcomes for all students when the nature of their disabilities makes such predictions nearly impossible. Ms. Goorevitch’s focus on better communication with parents seems key to avoiding the kinds of breakdowns that result in due process hearings. No one goes home feeling satisfied that justice was done. Finally, I empathize with the child whose privacy was voluntarily surrendered by his parent. I hope she will be satisfied with the outcome.

Concerned NWLK November 13, 2017 at 9:14 am

Dont forget that the legal bills continue to increase. Mr. Lyons is being sued for his lack of professional judgement when the Mrs. Fensor left the distinct. That bill will cost several hundred thousand dollar when its all said and done. Money that could have been better spent on students, programs etc…

sped parent November 13, 2017 at 10:36 am

@Donna,
In addition to disabled persons and their families needing assistance, as you say, they also need some degree of empathy from their fellow citizens. In my judgment, your repeated comments throughout this blog lack this entirely. The way you phrase your opinions are very demeaning to the children and their families and while I recognize you are entitled to your opinion, I believe you do quite a bit of damage from a human perspective. I’m not sure what your goal is with your repeated cries over IDEA — perhaps your energies are better placed with politicians in Washington who make these decisions. But if your goal is to make sped children and their families feel even more alienated and alone than they already do, mission accomplished! Please remember that when you look in the mirror each day. Those of us in the sped community certainly do.

Concerned NWLK November 13, 2017 at 11:08 am

@ Sue

Do you ever wonder the shortage area exists in the first place? Often time to few individual wish to teach in those areas, in fact it has little to due with Unions. Your contempt for unions is misplaced. As a form board member and community educational activist have you reached out to the Unions under Mary’s leadership? Have you attempt to see the more progressive leadership?
The simple answer is no. You prefer to bash the NFT and it members and leadership. The BOE under your leadership and the current leadership has work to harm the very teachers charged with implementing change for out students.
When we build bridge students will succeed, until then this violent visceral attack do nothing but keep us apart.

Sue Haynie November 13, 2017 at 11:44 am

@Concerned NWLK,

Yes, I did put some thought into why SPED is a Perennial shortage area as are Mathematics (7-12); Science (7-12); Technology Education (PK-12). Again, these shortage areas are a National problem, not just CT.

One glaring reason is Union rules that don’t allow educators in hard-to-staff subject areas, such as SPED, to be paid more for a harder job.

Who is helped by that rule? Certainly not the kids, the parents or the district.

Donna Smirniotopoulos November 13, 2017 at 12:26 pm

@sped parent, not sure how you got all that from my comment, which was not directed against sped children or their families. The way services are funded is worthy of a conversation. Improving communication seems to be in order. And there is no reason we can’t take a look at IDEA and still protect children who need services.

sped parent November 13, 2017 at 12:44 pm

@Donna, It is the entirety of what you post on this blog that reveals your attitude. I suppose you’d have to be in our shoes to understand how your comments impact sped families, their children, etc, especially given everything our kids face on a daily basis and the prejudices from people like you. You are so wrong if you don’t think sped kids feel this with every breath they take. No doubt Adam Lanza did, and look how well that turned out. And it’s not your comments about IDEA per se, but it is the way you phrase things that reveal your values and views. For example, you speak about “burdening” the public school system, as if these children don’t deserve an education. What other groups do you think shouldn’t “burden” the school system? Poor kids? ESL learners? Dumb kids? Greek kids who somewhere along the line didn’t come to America with perfect English?

Moreover, while the law is the law and IDEA exists, why don’t you spend more efforts into making it work is the most cost efficient way? Your real anger shouldn’t be at the special needs kids or their families, but on the current and previous administrations who interpreted the law so blindly and with disdain that they put us in this mess to begin with.

Donna Smirniotopoulos November 13, 2017 at 1:23 pm

@sped parent, casting aspersions does not elevate the plight of special needs children nor does it ease the funding burdens. IDEA is an unfunded mandate that the state of CT has pitched back to local school districts. It’s a recipe for anger and frustration from every quarter. Barbara Meyer-Mitchell noted on another thread that the funding of special education in this way sets us up for emotional battles where some feel victimized and others feel judged unfairly. For example you know nothing of me or my children or their experiences in public schools or their needs for special services. But you’ve easily labeled me as a baddie simply because I question how the system can continue as is and serve everyone’s needs. There is no hierarchy of victimhood here. There are stakeholders who don’t always work harmoniously together in part because the system doesn’t respect their varying points of view. We live in a world of finite resources. Some disabilities are insoluble. Now how do we treat everyone with equal empathy given those truths?

sped parent November 13, 2017 at 1:45 pm

@Donna, I did not cast aspersions, nor did I label you as a “baddie.” I merely claimed that your choice of words are not helpful, and in fact, they are very hurtful or demeaning. If it really is about finite resources, then why not look more into how these resources are being spent. Why is your only focus on IDEA if that is what you’re really after? I never said anything about you or your children and you are correct, I don’t know anything about them. I know I am not the person to dictate whether they are deserving of any of our tax dollars being spent on them, in the same way I pointed out that I don’t believe you should be that person either regarding others’ children. I was trying to indicate to you how hurtful your words are and how unhelpful they are to our culture from my perspective. You had said in another post that one of your children had special needs. I hope you “gave back” the tax dollars spent to educate them…or is it only other peoples’ children you don’t think should be educated?

Education101 November 13, 2017 at 2:11 pm

Make this right and suspend the age restriction or compensate these families to get the needed services. These students and families deserve the full support of the community. . . It’s sad to witness why the parents would even need to mount a legal challenge to petition this case and symptomatic of society’s safety fabric being lost. If only the abuse in social services expenditures can somehow be recaptured and redirected to those who fully deserve it – what a better world this would be.

sped parent November 13, 2017 at 2:30 pm

@Donna — It is not really the breakdown in communication (as you claim) that prompts parents to seek due process, it is almost always the fact that evaluations done are worth little and/or the student is not receiving services that are required by law. I had teachers, administrators, sped directors treat me horribly and yet I only filed for due process when the law was broken repeatedly. Please tell me in such circumstance how you propose better communication to deliver services that aren’t provided and rectify the situation? That’s the real crux of the problem — services required by law go un-delivered time and time again, costing even more money down the road than otherwise would have been needed had they been provided in the first place.

Norwalk TaxPayer November 13, 2017 at 6:57 pm

I genuinely feel terrible for the family having to resort to due process in order to get their son the services to which he is entitled and was promised. As a taxpayer, it is stories like this which are why people have such negative views about the Norwalk School District. Meanwhile, our home values continue to lag behind neighboring towns. When will Norwalk finally get SPED right? Also, of note, it seems like Dr. Goorevitch has spent a lot of her budget hiring yet more highly paid administrators and now, highly paid attorneys. If school budgets are so tight, put those dollars to programs not more Central Office salaries!!

Donna Smirniotopoulos November 13, 2017 at 8:02 pm

@sped parent, first I am sorry if you find the way I express my opinions hurtful. I have no desire to hurt anyone’s feelings. I am trying to have a rational dialogue about all of the difficulties—those faced by the children and their parents, by the teachers who may not have adequate training, by the BOE and the district who are struggling to provide what the law requires, and also to those who fund the system because their voices are so often not part of these conversations. Those on a fixed income, for instance, may have to make very hard choices—hurtful ones—if they find themselves forced to sell their homes because they can’t keep up with rising property taxes. Or they may have to choose between providing in-home care for a disabled spouse or paying their taxes on time.

The problem with IDEA is not that it exists. The problem is that it was not funded. We fund medicare, Medicaid and social security through our federal taxes. There are all kinds of social safety nets in place. But the education of children with special needs are not part of this formula except at the extreme end of the spectrum. The net impact of this template is school districts with increasing costs associated with remediation and special education services. The state does not help out until the per pupil cost is exceeded by some factor (five I believe in Norwalk).

I’m not ignorant of the difficulties faced by parents and their children who require special services. But what is wrong with looking for better ways to fund the needed services?

Also you said you hoped I “gave back” the tax dollars spent on my child who received pullout services and intimated that I only objected to other people’s children receiving taxpayer funded services. It’s not necessary to attack someone’s character in order to make a point. You’re right that there’s more to this than funding, that the district has waste in other areas. I’m concerned about that too. I can understand that there are deep emotional wounds. And I’m sorry if the system did not serve you and your child adequately. I regret that having been through this, civil discourse with someone who does not share your point of view is not possible.

Norwalk TaxPayer November 13, 2017 at 11:50 pm

As a taxpayer, I think Ms. Smirniotopoulos has a right to express concern about this issue. I haven’t read the other blog comments she posted so I can’t speak to those, but I will say that she raises a good point about IDEA not being funded by the federal government. My grandson lives in NJ and his district has the same issues ours does. As the number of children with special needs continues to rise, this does place a huge burden on taxpayers. Make no mistake – I am in no way trying to disparage families with special needs children. I see what my daughter goes through every day to get her little guy a proper education and it breaks my heart that she has to fight for so basic a right. If the federal government would assist the local communities in funding sped programs that would be ideal. But until that happens, I want to see my tax dollars funding educational programs to help these kids and in this particular case, this young man should have received proper care years ago. Shame on the school district for failing this child for so many years. Get out of court and step up and do the right thing for this boy and his family!

sped parent November 14, 2017 at 7:59 am

@NorwalkTaxPayer,

Thank you for expressing your opinion in a helpful manner. While I am a parent of a special needs child, I am also a taxpayer, and I hate to see my tax dollars being spent so inefficiently and wastefully. I understand the right for people to express their own opinions and viewpoints, and I have no issue with Donna doing just that. However, I merely wanted to point out that the way she expresses herself is hurtful to a generation of children and their families.

What I don’t understand, to those of you who have an issue with the fact that it is an unfunded mandate, is why you are not more interested in figuring out HOW your tax dollars are being spent in this arena. Why don’t you question why the Board of Ed is spending money on litigation for this young man? He can’t read, so are they fighting it because they feel he was provided with a free and appropriate education? It seems doubtful to me.

I have repeatedly asked this Board, on this site and elsewhere, to release a breakdown of what is being spent on legal fees related to sped and why? I agree there are probably some superfluous law suits out there, but I firmly believe the vast majority of legal cases in sped are because the district has failed to provide what they are mandated to provide by law. You may not like the law, and you have every right to try and change IDEA, but for now it is the law and it states that these children are entitled to a free and appropriate education. When the district fails to provide that, over and over again, they should be held accountable. To often in the past, our district has spent money on legal fees trying to delay services, stall, etc., etc., when that money could have and should have been spent on providing services when they are originally needed. Had they done that, they in all likelihood would have saved all of us taxpayers millions and millions of dollars. Believe me, when a district doesn’t provide appropriate services and instead funnels the money to lawyers, as a society and as tax payers, we all pay in one way or another. When services aren’t provided, there is a greater likelihood the child will end up in prison, for example, or needing care for life. If you don’t think your tax dollars ultimately pay for that, you are mistaken. The list goes on and on. Why don’t you ask your Board of Ed for information on what sped parents know all too well – that money is being spent on unnecessary legal challenges when it could have much more efficiently been put to work on providing programming. I’ll ask them here again — Could someone from the Board of Ed please provide that information? If you don’t believe me, just look on the State Department of Education’s website where they provide easily accessible information on all the legal challenges in special education, and you can easily see what the parents (and in some cases BoE) are challenging. In most cases, it is basic and nothing close to egregious.

Donna Smirniotopoulos November 14, 2017 at 1:01 pm

@sped parent, you raise excellent points about BOE spending on legal challenges brought by parents whose children are not receiving services they have been guaranteed by law. I was speaking to the funding issue separately in part because I think if more sped funding came from outside the district, the district would spend less time and money fighting parents and more time providing services. I may be completely in error, but I believe that the financial burden of providing the legally mandated services is part of what drives the litigation piece. The schools bring in the lawyers either to protect themselves from litigation or to buffer themselves against having to provide a relatively costly service. I don’t disagree that school districts engage in this practice. We had the same situation in Westport. And the Superintendent was able to explain the problem succinctly but not to the satisfaction of sped parents who felt they were being stonewalled. So for me, in my very limited experience, the best resolution may lie is alternative funding mechanisms that take the district out of a litigious and overly-resource protective role. This would not address quality of service issues, but it might relieve some headache and heartache.

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NancyOnNorwwalk.com was conceived as the place to go for Norwalk residents to get the real, unvarnished story about what is going on in and around their city. NancyOnNorwalk does not intend to be a print newspaper online; rather, it exists to pull the curtain back and shine a spotlight on how Norwalk is run and what is happening regarding issues that have an impact on taxpayers’ pocketbooks and safety. As an independent site, NancyOnNorwalk’s first and only allegiance is to the reader.

About Nancy

Nancy came to Norwalk in September 2010 and, after reporting on Norwalk for two years for another company, resigned to begin Nancy On Norwalk so she engage in journalism the way it was meant to be done. She is married to career journalist Mark Chapman, has a son, Eric (the artist and web designer who built this website), and two cats – a middle-aged lady and a young hottie who are learning how to peacefully co-exist.