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CT: IEP meetings 'a battlefield' for parents; SPED: "significant portion of their budgets"

May 12, 2024, Rhode Island Current: For Conn. parents, special education meetings with schools are ‘a battlefield’

At least once a year, parents of students with disabilities enter a meeting with school district leaders to discuss their children’s development and any changes to their individualized education plans, which spell out what services students will receive that school year.

State guidelines say parents are “an equal member” of the Planning and Placement Team — a group also made up of teachers and school administrators that determines the educational needs of a child — but the families in the room and hired experts that help them navigate the special education system say otherwise.

They describe the meetings as a battlefield.

They say the encounters often end with ignored concerns, belittlement or intimidation on the part of school officials toward parents.

Parents, lawyers and special education advocates say the problem isn’t the educators in the classroom but instead local administrators who create a relationship that’s lacking in partnership and transparency.

There’s hundreds of cases of poisoned relationships between schools and parents,” said Andrew Feinstein, a special education attorney who’s been practicing for over 20 years.

“[Districts] think they absolutely understand the child, but they don’t understand them at all. … It’s this kind of arrogance of expertise … where they’re going through the motions and talking to parents like, ‘We’re doing what we have to do. … And our hope is the parents agree with us, but if they don’t? Well, we still know what’s right.’”. . .

Matthew Cerrone, the education department’s director of communications, also outlined state resources, including the Bureau of Special Education Call Center and the Connecticut Parent Advocacy Center, which can help parents understand procedural safeguards, file complaints and other “options to help families and schools resolve disputes.”

But stakeholders argue that more has to be done.

Legal and educational jargon, hundreds of pages of pamphlets and interactions that make parents feel like there’s a clear power dynamic make it difficult to meaningfully engage in the meetings with districts, stakeholders say. It’s also difficult to know the full extent of rights and what you can challenge, ask for or negotiate with the district educating your child.

“It’s hard enough to have a child with a disability, then, on top of that, to have to be expected to know what you don’t know about education. … Schools are set up to confuse parents on every level,” said Kit Savage, the managing director of Savage Advocates and mother of two children with disabilities. “[The system] is stacked against them. It’s set up to fail parents who don’t have outside support.”

“When you walk into a room as one parent with a room full of professionals who are on the same team, it feels intimidating. It’s intimidating for anyone. They work for the same district, they’ve been in contact and communication about the matter, and you have an imbalance of information,” said Kathryn Scheinberg-Meyer, an attorney at the Center for Children’s Advocacy. . . . 

Parents across Connecticut say meeting with districts is a frustrating process that leaves them feeling that the education leaders they once may have trusted are cheating some of the highest-need students out of equal access to public education.

But Fran Rabinowitz, the executive director of the Connecticut Association of Public School Superintendents and a former superintendent in Bridgeport and Hamden, says most districts are doing “the very best they can” amid a teacher shortage and increasing costs for special education services.

“I know Waterbury was down about 55 special ed teachers,” Rabinowitz said. “There’s no way that you can provide the full services that you want to provide. And the caseloads have become much higher — I worry about that.”

Rabinowitz said she hasn’t heard superintendents directly speak about complaints between families and administrators, but if it’s occurring in many districts, the concerns from parents are “reasonable.”

“If we’re down all these special ed teachers, para[educators] and school psychologists, it’s got to have an impact,” Rabinowitz said, adding that several districts are now hiring contractors to make up for the staffing challenges, which affects school budgets and rising special education costs.

Connecticut public schools spend nearly $2.7 billion annually on special education services. For some districts, special education costs make up a significant portion of their budgets.

For example, in Bridgeport, which educates the most students with disabilities in the state, over 26% of the total expenditures go toward special education for things like teacher salaries, transportation or outsourcing to other schools if the district can’t meet the students’ needs.

A new portal on the education department’s website that went live in late April will now make state complaints publicly available. A handful of complaints filed in the first few weeks, mostly pertaining to failure to properly implement an IEP, have been uploaded so far from Danbury, New Haven, Wallingford, Bristol and the Connecticut Technical Education and Career System.

Formal state complaints can be filed by families or organizations if there’s a belief that a “local school district or other public educational agency has violated a requirement of state special education law,” or federal law, according to guidance by the state education department. The Bureau of Special Education is then required to investigate and issue a findings letter within 60 days.

The state Department of Education did not respond to questions asking how common complaints of inadequate services are, why the process between families and districts may feel combative or what factors can make it difficult for a district to meet special education demands. Interviews with parents across the state from some of the wealthiest districts, like Woodbridge, to towns like Watertown, to cities like Bridgeport and suburbs like Enfield, however, point to enough similarities to indicate that the issue may be widespread.

‘It’s like a battlefield’

When Jennifer Cotto prepared for her PPT meetings with Watertown Public Schools, nervousness would kick in a few days before.

She called the meetings “anxiety-ridden.”

She would make a list of all of the questions and concerns she had about her 4-year-old daughter Isabel’s pre-K education plan. Sometimes the preparation would be several pages long. She just wanted to stay organized.

Before the meetings, Cotto would sit in her car and take a few deep breathes to make sure she could enter the meeting calm and collected. . . .

But when the meeting was easy to set up and went well — just introducing herself and her child and setting a time for testing — she was hopeful maybe her case would be different.

That dream was short-lived. The second meeting was full of disagreements about the services her daughter needed.

“When you’re a parent of a high-functioning child, you’re always being told ‘Well, it’s not enough of a disability to get the help you’re looking for,’ or you have to argue your way to get what you’re looking for,” Cotto said, adding that despite her daughter being medically diagnosed with autism, the district wanted to limit her IEP “as developmentally delayed.” . . .

 “My school district tried to tell me … she might grow out of this,” Cotto said. “But we were quick to say ‘No. You don’t grow out of autism.’ She will always be on the autism spectrum. She will learn, she will grow and eventually be a very productive kid, but … you can’t label her as developmentally delayed to keep her from getting the services she needs. It’s ridiculous.”

The disability classification could change the services a student is provided. A child on the autism spectrum would have access to behavioral therapy and one-on-one instruction, while children diagnosed with learning disabilities may receive limited services, like additional time for testing.

“It’s this resistance to give complete services, well-rounded services,” Cotto said.

After her daughter’s medical diagnosis, Cotto got her into private occupational therapy. Cotto said the district told her that they didn’t believe her daughter needed physical therapy services at the school because she was doing well holding a pencil and other tasks.

“But the only reason why she is doing as well as she is, is because I have a private OT outside of the school,” Cotto said. “The school is looking at it as ‘How is this impacting education right now, right in this moment?’ And my thing is, how is this impacting education long term? So if I were to stop giving my getting my daughter outside OT right now — in six months, how will she be?”

By the third PPT meeting, all held within the first year of enrollment in the pre-K program, Cotto said she felt the district was just looking at her daughter as a “price tag” after she said the district refused to provide 30 minutes of physical therapy a week.

“You’re not willing to give her 30 minutes of your services, just so we can say, ‘At least we try it and then we determined it’s unnecessary’?” Cotto said, adding that it would have been a different story if the district had made attempts to compromise rather than completely shut down the suggestion.

“It’s literally like a battlefield. It’s just so awful and feels like you’re constantly going to war,” Cotto said. “The way it was handled was awful. It really did feel like ‘Sorry, your kid’s not worth it. Your kid’s needs are not enough for us.’”

Cotto’s family left Watertown and relocated to Ansonia this spring. . . .

After her child was enrolled in public schools for 13 years, Shari Jackson said, she can’t wait for that last PPT meeting at the end of the year.

“Having a child with special needs is not the hardest thing, but having a child with special needs go through the school district is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Jackson said.

Throughout her adopted daughter’s K-12 educational career, spent both in Wethersfield and Enfield, there would be some days where Jackson would stay up until 2 a.m. preparing for meetings.



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