The state's budget crisis is hitting Connecticut schools hard, and special education programs might also be feeling the pain, even though these services are protected by federal law.
Paraprofessionals across the state say that schools are not fully staffing these positions, which are often used in the classroom to aid students with disabilities. And that could violate students’ rights to a free and appropriate public education, which is codified in federal law.
John Flanders, president of the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center, said paraprofessionals have been calling his office, worried that students aren't getting the services they need.
"I've been one-on-one with this kid for two years and now they've got me splitting my time between two kids," Flanders said, paraphrasing the many calls he's received. They also told him they worried that they wouldn't be able to adequately support each child.
Now that might not sound like such a big deal, but for some kids with significant needs, Flanders said it could be.
"If this is a student who needs somebody translating or supporting or helping them navigate through a piece of material, and that educator -- that adult -- isn't there for half of the class, then there's a real possibility of missing what was being presented in the class," he said.
Valerie Bruneau, former principal at Torrington Middle School, agreed with Flanders.
"If a district has an IEP for a child and it requires this resource and it's not provided to them," she said, "it would be detrimental, because there's a team of people that said that this is what this particular child needs, and so absolutely it would be detrimental."
That IEP she mentioned is an Individualized Education Program. Each child in special education gets one, and it's made by a team of parents, teachers, and other educators. It's a legally binding document that districts must follow to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
Bruneau said she was let go from her job in Torrington soon after she raised concerns about her school needing more paras, although it’s unclear whether the two are related. She’d been on the job fewer than 90 days.
The district's superintendent didn't respond to several requests for comment. It's unclear if Torrington has fully staffed its paras this year. Last year, the district laid off 40 of them, and paras fought to get 21 rehired.
State officials said they're working with districts to make sure IEPs are being followed.