Connecticut Sets Up Special Ed Task Force Amid Concerns Raised By Parents

Feb 3, 2017

A few years ago, Sue Davis was in her son's school when something happened. Her son was forcibly restrained in front of her, she said, and placed in seclusion.

She said she had no idea that the school would seclude her son, who's autistic, when his behavior regressed.

"It's horrific, it actually has a visceral response in me, I wanted to, to be honest with you, vomit," Davis said. "You're there to protect your child, I am his fiercest advocate and I feel like I didn't do that for him."

Davis was one of about 20 people who spoke at a recent state board of education meeting, urging the board to address what it considers to be violations of federal special education law.

One of the issues they addressed has to do with observations. Parents are allowed to observe their child in school, but many are saying that schools are not allowing parents to come in.

State officials agreed that parents have a right to observe.

But Peter Haberlandt, a lawyer with the State Department of Education, cautioned that classroom observations aren't guaranteed.

"Parental observation is not necessarily a uniformly free-standing, absolute right," he told board members, adding that these observations can be distracting to other kids, and that the privacy of other students is also a concern.

But parents and advocates said that without observing, schools can do almost anything. 

"So if I did not go in and observe," parent Davis told WNPR, "I would never have known, because my son is not a great communicator because of his autistic diagnosis, and never once said this was happening to him."

Independent Educational Evaluations

More than 70 people -- parents, attorneys and special education advocates -- signed a petition claiming that special education problems are getting worse across the state. The petition specifically asked the state board to revamp its regulations on what's called an independent educational evaluation, or IEE.

Parents often request an IEE if the school district has evaluated their child and determined he or she isn't eligible for special education services. These evaluations are paid for with public money, and often cost thousands of dollars.

Parents have an option to get an IEE if they disagree with the school's decision. But many parents claim that schools are denying their right to a timely evaluation, and that this delay places their child at risk of falling behind. 

In June of 2015, Isabelina Rodriguez, chief of the Bureau of Special Education Services, wrote a letter to districts with guidance on independent evaluations. However, several parents allege that obtaining an IEE became harder after the guidance circulated, despite the guidance being clear about the importance of an IEE. 

Dianna Wentzell, commissioner of the State Department of Education, said these allegations should be explored. 

"There are things that were raised today that are certainly not in alignment with our expectations," Wentzell said.

Several state school board members expressed empathy for the parents who spoke about how poorly some schools are treating children with special needs.

"It doesn't sound to me like the processes in place are working," said board member Joseph Vrabely. "Are we not following the rules that are already set up, or do we need new ones?... These districts should be providing IEEs and they're not, they're ducking it."

Attorney Haberlandt emphasized that the parent statements were allegations and not proven incidents, but, he added, the department should not ignore them.

The board eventually passed a resolution to set up a task force, which, once established, would hold a series of public hearings to get a broader sense of what's been happening. It would have 180 days to report its findings to the State Board of Education.