‘I was gutted:’ Greenwich school board, parents react to special education report

GREENWICH — When the state ruled in her young son’s favor and found the Greenwich Public Schools had broken the law, Audra O’Donovan expected meaningful change.

But the special education parent and co-founder of the Special Education Advisory Council, who had filed a complaint with the state after the district denied one of her three children a comprehensive evaluation, O’Donovan said she was dismayed when even the state mandate didn’t move the needle.

“Our PPS (Pupil Personnel Services, which oversees special education) department refused to follow the corrective action and brought my family to due process,” she said during public comments of Thursday night’s Board of Education meeting. “Which basically means they sued me. I was forced to hire an attorney for my 7-year old son.”

According to O’Donovan, the state Department of Education again intervened and mandated an evaluation of her son. Several weeks later, while attending a Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meeting — where parents and staff negotiate the provisions for a special education student as codified in their Individualized Education Program (IEP) — for another of her children, she was told that her son was exited from special education. The mandated evaluation showed he didn’t need special education services, the district said, despite the parents’ protests.

“My husband and I felt powerless and that our innocent children were the victims once again,” O’Donovan told the school board. “Retaliation, bullying and disregard for the law is very evident in Greenwich Public Schools. … There must be consequences for those who violate the law.”

She was one of several parents who spoke at the meeting, as special education families, Board of Education members and administrators had their first opportunity to respond to a recently released special education review that highlights the challenges in Greenwich’s schools.

For some special education parents, the document, compiled by Tennessee-based education consulting firm Key2Ed over the 2019-20 school year, reaffirms the longstanding distrust and inadequate nature of special education services. The study, which included interviews with 99 parents, staff and administrators, also sheds light on the concerns of teachers, who, among other things, said that at times they feared retribution from district administrators and were under resourced to provide mandated services.

The aim of the review, said Joyce Little, founding partner of Key2Ed, was to reduce conflict and improve communication between families and educators involved in the special education process. Areas of positive and negative work were identified. Little and Cassie Velasquez, a managing partner of Key2ed, were careful to point out the review produced anecdotal observations and was not a thorough, full-fledged study of the PPS department.

According to Velasquez, the study found pockets where the district was performing well, and others that needed improvement.

Superintendent of Schools Toni Jones said that some of the actionable items laid out by the report — such as an informational website to edify parents on the special education process and regulations — could be easily implemented. Others, including a remodeling of the district’s Response to