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Norwalk parents, attorney and BoE members trade jabs over SpEd complaint

Attorney Robin Keller, left, during a 2016 Norwalk Board of Education meeting in City Hall. (File photo)

Updated, 6:28 a.m.: Copy edits

NORWALK, Conn. – Norwalk parents, Board of Education members and an attorney traded charges this week over last week’s complaint to the State alleging systemic problems in Norwalk Special Education.

Norwalk Public Schools said in a statement last week that it was “shocked and disappointed” by the complaint.  Parents and Attorney Robin Keller said administrators shouldn’t have been shocked, as the effort wasn’t a secret and the problems are well-known.

“I have to say, I am a little confused …. Norwalk Public Schools has made huge strides and improvements with SPED … we’ve never claimed to have solved every issue but we have made progress,” BoE Chairman Mike Barbis said in an email, echoing the official statement made Friday. “Why didn’t Ms. Keller file a complaint BEFORE we made all of these improvements? Why now I wonder?”

BoE member Mike Lyons questioned late Tuesday in an e-mail to NancyOnNorwalk whether Keller will make money from filing the complaint.

Keller said Saturday that she suspended her law practice for three months to write the complaint pro bono and that she does not stand to make any money from it.  Other attorneys dropped out of the complaint when they learned that they wouldn’t be receiving any compensation, she said Tuesday.

Barbis and Lyons were the only Board members to reply to a Tuesday email from NancyOnNorwalk.

 

‘Systemic complaint’

Keller on Saturday likened the complaint to a federal class action lawsuit, in that each of the 17 children included is representative of a wide spectrum of children. She can support every allegation she has made, and hundreds of documents were submitted as evidence, she said.

“Parent after parent” came to Special Education attorneys and advocates with the same complaints, and an obvious pattern emerged, Keller said.  She explained that parents are afraid of retaliation but were fed up, and while the advocates originally thought they’d have to go through “due process” for each child, they decided to switch to a systemic complaint because there’s no point in hearing each of the cases individually.

The complaint was filed by Keller, the Center for Children’s Advocacy, Educational Advocate Jill Chuckas and other attorneys and advocates who are members of Special Education Equity for Kids of CT (SEEK), last week’s press release said.

The complaint’s goal is to bring the state’s attention to basic violations of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and request an investigation, Keller said.

The Center for Children’s Advocacy on its website claims success in systemic complaints filed against Bridgeport in 2013 and 2015, and against New Haven.

“Complaints in recent years have led the state or federal government to find systemic violations in Bridgeport, Hartford, Darien and Stamford,” according to a Connecticut Mirror report.

An investigation normally takes 60 days and the state will at random audit 20 percent of Norwalk’s Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), Keller said.  IEPs are education plans for how to address each SpEd student’s specific needs.

The stories are “truly heartbreaking,” Keller said.  She charged that while the high school student cited in the complaint did not attend school, it was Norwalk Public School’s responsibility to look into why her program was unsuccessful, why she was not motivated to attend.

NPS missed some of the child’s disabilities until recently, the complaint alleges.

 

NPS statement

“We are shocked and disappointed by the allegations made by Attorney Keller, given the significant investment that Norwalk has made in special education in the past two years,” a statement released Friday by Norwalk Public Schools Communications Director Brenda Wilcox Williams said. “Our strong preference would have been for advocates and attorneys to encourage parents to resolve concerns in a collaborative manner, before filing a complaint which will redirect untold hours away from the supervision of quality services for students and in-school coaching for our staff. Over the past year, we have successfully resolved concerns when they have been brought to us.”

Keller said she laughed when she read the district’s response.  No one involved hid that they had been working on the complaint, and Chief of Specialized Learning and Student Services Yvette Goorevitch “was very aware,” she asserted.

“I’m in shock and taken aback by the Norwalk Public Schools response to the systemic complaints,” Niz Gjuraj, a parent, said in a Friday email to BoE members. “Chief of SpEd, Yvette knows there are issues, as does {Superintendent of Schools Steven} Adamowski.”

Another parent said she was “disgusted” by the statement because, “I know first hand that they have received countless emails from parents begging for their help for years.”

Barbis is “misrepresenting the facts and not the whole board’s opinion which is exactly what he did during the lawsuit of Chrissy Fensore which cost our district hundreds of thousands of dollars!” she wrote. “I blame the Board of Ed for their head in the sand tactics and lack of care for our children. Throwing money at inappropriate programs without taking care of the children in need now.”

 

If NPS had apologized and promised to fully investigate the issues and work with the state to resolve them, everyone would have been satisfied, Keller said Saturday.

“I am saddened by the conduct of NPS, who should have made an appropriate and professional response to the state complaints,” wrote a parent who is part of the complaint. “The issues at hand should be of the utmost concern for NPS and the Board of Education and the responses from both, should have been professional, factual and non-emotional. Unfortunately, instead of acknowledging a legitimate concern, they sunk to the level of blaming the families of the special education community within the City of Norwalk.”

As a response, Barbis referred NancyOnNorwalk to the report Goorevitch gave in July at the Board of Education retreat.

CREC Report update June 2018

“As you can deduce, there was a great deal of work to do in this regard; decades of neglect by prior Boards and administrations were not going to be overcome in two years,” Barbis wrote. “But as Ms. Goorevitch’s report to the Board this summer showed, significant progress and success have been achieved.  Her report also showed areas we need to continue to address.”

“In any event, the Board has never claimed to have {solved} all of the problems with SPED, but we’ve taken key steps and we have solved a number of the problems – and we will continue working on all of this,” Barbis wrote. “Let’s remember that NPS is serving over 1,000 SPED families ….”

New programs like a dyslexia clinic are great but needs aren’t met if children aren’t diagnosed with dyslexia, Keller said Saturday.

The Learners Excelling and Progressing (LEAP) program is a great idea but the staff turnover is atrocious, she charged.

“NPS and the Board respond to parent complaints about basic services not being provided by turning any such conversation to how innovative NPS has become,” Keller wrote Tuesday. “The problem is that basic entitlements are not being provided as well as children not being timely identified as in need of services.”

“I’m shocked that they’re shocked.   And while I appreciate all the new programs, I have serious concerns about their {implementation}.  The LEAP classroom is already a disaster,” a parent who posts on NancyOnNorwalk under the pseudonym “Concerned SPED mom,” wrote Tuesday in an email, calling the BoE Ad Hoc Special Education Committee “a bunch of smoke, mirrors, empty promises and more of the same garbage as last year.”

“I worry that the NEST program which on paper is amazing will just be another case of Norwalk ruining a good thing by making up their own lite version of a program that is proven when done correctly,” she wrote. “Now, this new literacy center.  Again, great idea… I can’t wait to see how Norwalk will ruin that too.”

Wilcox Williams on Tuesday evening released this statement, in response to the parents’ comments:

“Responding to concerns about program implementation and student progress will always be part of special education work. We take parent concerns and complaints very seriously. Our special education administrators are in frequent communication with parent advocates, and for that reason, we were surprised that this systemic complaint had been filed.

“We will be working with the Connecticut State Department of Education to provide documentation as may be requested, but will not be discussing Attorney Keller’s claims in public. At the same time, we remain committed to continuing our strong progress in revamping the delivery of services to special needs students, and to establishing innovative programs and services for all our children.”

 

 

Lyons questions attorney fees

“I’d like to know if Ms. Keller will agree to waive any collection of attorneys fees from NPS in connection with this case, so her efforts don’t pull resources away from the very children she claims to care about?” Lyons said in a Tuesday email. “We Board members work to help special education students (and our other students) as unpaid volunteers.  If she cares as deeply about them as she says she does, should we assume she’ll do the same?”

Keller responded:

“Please let Mr. Lyons know pursuant to Vultaggio v. Smithtown Board of Ed (216 F. Supp 2d 96), the court held the state complaint process not to be an IDEA ‘action or proceeding’ therefore attorney’s fees incurred in connection with the complaint could not be awarded under IDEA (due to the informality and absence of procedural safeguards.)   Therefore there will not be any attorneys fees to be collected. Very different than a due process IDEA ‘action or proceeding’ in which the prevailing party may recover attorneys fees.

“The attorneys and advocates that collaborated on the filing of this systemic complaint purposely filed a systemic complaint versus 17 separate due process hearing requests so there could be absolutely no question of any personal financial motivation.  There should also not be a sliver of doubt in Mr. Lyons mind that I care as deeply for the children of Norwalk as he or any other Board member and appreciate their efforts on behalf of our children.  I look forward to working with the Board and Administration in a collaborative manner toward ensuring that every child receives the academic support and related services they are entitled to under IDEA.”

 

 

Compliments for teachers

“I love our teachers, I love our providers, they are overworked, overburdened and don’t get the support that I know at the district level they ask for,” Keller said, calling the teachers and providers “ridiculously dedicated.”

“They come to my office very upset because they are so professional,” Keller said Saturday. “… They have stuck things out through much change in Central Office, but without having the most basic needs of the kids met.”

Norwalk Federation of Teachers Mary Yordon did not reply to a Tuesday email from NancyOnNorwalk.

 

7 comments

Sue Haynie October 10, 2018 at 7:09 am

Many out there will disagree with me, but I believe the fundamental flaw with special ed in public schools is that the staff are unionized and the children aren’t. The Union collectively protects adult interests over those of children. This isn’t out of meanness or indifference but a Union’s job is to protect their members FIRST. It makes it almost impossible for public schools to reach excellence and/or compete with a well-run private entity. Special Ed in public schools is a perfect example of being only as strong as your weakest link.

Below are some examples of how Connecticut laws or union contract rules favor adults over children in special ed:

There are perennial shortage of Special Ed (SPED) teachers, math, science and technology teacher due to union rules*(see shortage link below) because the unions demand that ALL teachers, regardless of their expertise or need, be paid t same rate based on their years teaching and degrees. It’s turns supply and demand on its head.

In Connecticut, a teacher certified as a special education teacher is considered ‘highly qualified’ to teach Every subject (English, math,science, writing, social studies, etc.), in Every grade K-12 and in all 13 categories of SPED *(see link of SPED categories);

For most of Connecticut, (and nation) tenured staff can’t be required to get additional training, certification, etc. beyond that mandated in their union contract;

In Connecticut, it’s highy likely that a SPED teacher who was certified in Connecticut prior to 2013 had no courses in how to teach reading at their college of education even though about 35%+/- SPED kids in Connecticut are SLD/Dyslexic;

Most union contracts require that school assignment be based on union seniority not student need;

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

(Tanya Smith) Concerned Parent October 10, 2018 at 7:35 am

As every SpEd parent, I am concerned for all the SpEd children in the city of Norwalk. We have all been reading about the 17 children and families involved in the suit against NPS. Some of the comments are disturbing. For instance, Stacey Heiligenthaler, the Assistant Director of Specialized Learning and Student Services, made a statement that ABA Therapist is a made-up position. I understand Applied Behavior Analysis is the teaching method used by ABA Therapists, who were hired and trained by NPS and BCBAs. So if this is a ‘made-up’ position, NPS system was the one to make it up to temporarily appease SpEd parents. Also, if it is a made up position, why do tax payers pay unreasonable costs for the LEAP program, IPP, and other outside resources using ABA Therapists to teach, and reinforce services, for our SpEd children?
Honestly I can say, I have witnessed leaps and bounds from some of NPS’s children with Autism when they have been assigned a 1:1 ‘made-up’ ABA Therapist. Some of these children spend more time with the ABA Therapist than their assigned teacher. In reality, they are the ones who show affection to our children, and the children respond to them the most!
Maybe NPS system should consider cutting Stacey Heiligenthaler‘s approximate $170,000 a year position, and tallying it up between the ‘made-up’ positions of ABA Therapists, who actually care for our SpEd children!?!

Niz gjuraj October 10, 2018 at 8:06 am

My kid literal walked out of schoo Monday
I canny quote the reasons given but I can state as a high school
Student recognizes Norwalk HS simply won’t teach the way SpEd kids learn. SpEd teachers simply don’t get the training needed for their SpEd students or the tools and curriculum. I’m on my 7th PPT with NHS since IEE’s in the spring of 2017 and still Yvette G, Joe Rusdo or Ms Foley won’t get my kid the needed services!

MarjorieM October 10, 2018 at 11:00 am

Let us not forget that these problems now targetted at Special Ed are as a result of complaints from 2016, 2017 and 2018, under a new administrator and under the purview of Superintendent Adamowski. This Board of Education continues to point fingers at the previous administrators. It almost sounds like Trump’s strategy of repeatedly bringing up Clinton to cover responsibilities they now own. This Superintendent, this administrator and this Board of Education own these problems! Take responsibility!
What happened to the $3,500,000 given to special education under Adamowski? Where was that spent? Why is there new furniture at central office for the special education staff?
Sue Haynes, couldn’t you come up with a better argument for not providing FUNDAMENTAL services to children than blaming the union? Your argument isn’t even worth commenting on!
Board of Education members, if you are not able to focus on the fundamental needs of Norwalk’s students because “We are volunteers,” let people who have children in the system, and who want to take on the work, volunteer. Take on the responsibility or give it to others!

Pash October 10, 2018 at 1:45 pm

well said @ MarjorieM! I always say that board members should only be voted in with children in the school system The board always comments that they do this on there own time, WELL no one asked you to participate or forced you to be voted in!!!

Concerned SPED Mom October 10, 2018 at 3:51 pm

Lyons questions attorney fees

“I’d like to know if Ms. Keller will agree to waive any collection of attorneys fees from NPS in connection with this case, so her efforts don’t pull resources away from the very children she claims to care about?” Lyons said in a Tuesday email.

Will Ms.Moses be waiving her fees to defend these cases or will Norwalk waste money that could be used to fix this and actually help our under served children?

Teacher October 11, 2018 at 7:32 am

Legal fee thats a rich one. How much has been wasted and taken from our kids because of legal fees….

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