SEEK holds positions on special education matters that impact students with disabilities in Connecticut and creates Bills on important matters that require change.
We have retained a well-respected Hartford consultant help us track legislation and set up meetings with legislators and key staff. SEEK's legislative committee of Andy Feinstein, John Flanders, Terry Bedard, Diane Willcutts, and Gerri Fleming have developed an aggressive legislative agenda, aimed at securing and enhancing the rights of students with disabiliti
The process of developing IEPs relies, in theory, on the active and honest participation of all who know and work with the child. This means that teachers and related service providers need to be able to speak freely at Planning and Placement Team (PPT) meetings. All too often, school staff meet in advance and are told what they can and cannot say at meetings. Public school teachers and service providers commonly report that they are fearful of speaking out on behalf of children with disabilities because, if they do so, they will be reprimanded or punished by their supervisors. SEEK is developing legislation to protect school staff from retaliation for speaking openly and honestly when planning the program and placement of a student with disabilities.
What parents, advocates, and attorneys hear from school staff:
“You can’t say this came from me, but you need to ask the district to evaluate your child for special education.”
“I can’t tell parents about the problems their child is experiencing at school
because, if my supervisor found out I did this, I could lose my job.”
“I advocated for a child (with disabilities) to get more support at school. As a result, I was reassigned to a classroom with the most difficult kids and not enough staff.”
Teachers and other school staff who support children with disabilities are routinely silenced by administrators—often in an attempt to avoid the cost of necessary special education services.
For example, it is common for the school team to meet prior to Planning and Placement Team meetings (PPTs), so the administrator can let staff know what they can and cannot say during the meeting. If a teacher breaks ranks and makes a recommendation that was not previously approved, it is not uncommon for there to be consequences—anything from receiving a verbal reprimand to being fired.
Denying a child necessary services when they are younger often results in escalating problems and a need for exponentially more expensive services down the road. And damaging parent trust makes litigation more likely, whereas working collaboratively and honestly with parents typically results in parents being willing to meet the school district more than halfway.
Aside from costs to the district, censoring teachers is damaging to individuals and society as a whole. Students with disabilities who receive inappropriate programming are at high risk for depression, dropping out of school, unemployment and underemployment, and incarceration. Investing in appropriate programming for students with disabilities is beneficial to everyone, and for that to happen, school staff need to be able to openly express their views about a student’s needs.
As a start, we need a Connecticut statute to protect teachers and school staff from retaliation and to encourage them to communicate with parents and others inside and outside of PPTs their perceptions regarding the student’s disability, program, and placement.
When Congress passed the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, it promised to fund 40% of the special education costs. Congress has failed to meet this commitment,
The Connecticut State Department of Special Education issued guidance on a parent's right to an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) and observations that has made attaining IEEs and observations less available to parents of children with disabilities.
Due to their disabilities, students with IEPs disproportionately exhibit maladaptive behavior. Dealing with these behavior issues is a delicate matter which has led to conflict between teachers and administrators.
There is a legislative initiative to create a Special Education Predictable Cost Cooperative, which could compromise the individualization of special education programs.
There is a wide achievement gap between students with disabilities and their typical peers.
There is a recurring legislative effort to switch the burden of proving an appropriate program from the school district to the parents.
SEEK-CT is committed to ensuring that every Connecticut child has a safe classroom in which to learn. Students with disabilities sometimes engage in maladaptive behavior that can be disruptive or physically violent. In 2018 the Legislature, with no input from students with disabilities or their parents, passed Public Act 18-89 ostensibly designed to address the problem of classroom safety. Governor Malloy, in response to public outcry against the bill vetoed the legislation and appointed a Task Force to revamp the proposal. To date the Task Force has failed to produce a bill that does not conflict with existing state and federal law or undermine efforts to provide these students with the skills they need to be functional members of society.
SEEK-CT believes that effective legislation can be written to address the real concerns of educators. Such legislation requires three elements:
1. The law must strictly follow the requirements of the Individual with Disabilities In Education Act (IDEA), including the use of Functional Behavioral Analyses (FBAs) and Individual Behavior Plans, utilizing positive behavioral support and trauma-informed interventions. The entire process must be conducted with the equal participation of parents. Further, all students exhibiting serious maladaptive behavior must be promptly evaluated for eligibility for special education services. Providing services to potentially disruptive students can avoid the problem in the first place.
2. Many teachers and service providers report that they receive inadequate support from school administrators when faced with a student with disruptive behaviors. Some report that they are aggressively discouraged from referring students to special education to the point that they are threatened with retaliation for seeking additional services for these students. SEEK-CT supports legislation to protect school staff from retaliation for supporting a student’s needs.
3. Many of the cases of young students engage in disruptive or violent behavior because it is, for them, the only effective means of communicating their wants and feelings. School districts need to provide the resources and supports to provide students with limited verbal abilities the tools they need to express themselves. Punishment perpetuates the disability.
It is clear that almost all disruptive behavior, particularly that of young children, results from unmet needs and deficits in the children’s ability. SEEK-CT recognizes the need to prevent possible injury to others in the room but adamantly opposes any attempt to address the problem through punishment or emoval from education without effective steps to support the student’s development.
The achievement gap in Connecticut between children with disabilities and those without disabilities is acute. According to the most recent data from the CT State Department of Education children with disabilities perform significantly behind their nondisabled peers in reading and math for grades 3 through 8. This data does not include 1% of students with severe cognitive disabilities who are exempt from standardized testing.
Lower achievement has a devastating impact on children with disabilities leading to higher incidence of health diagnoses; higher dropout rates with fewer students reaching post-secondary education; and higher crime rates, unemployment, and poverty. This all leads to a greater strain on Connecticut’s economic resources and social services needed to support adults with disabilities who were not prepared by elementary and secondary education.
The federal law protecting children with disabilities – The Individual with Disabilities Education Act – states its purpose as:
“to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.” 20 U.S.C. Section 1400(d)(1)
The data clearly show that Connecticut’s educational system is not working, particularly for children with disabilities who are not fully prepared for further education, employment, and independent living. The one-size-fits-all approach to education contributes to the wide achievement gap. Closing the larger achievement gaps, even over the course of several grades, would require a much larger commitment of resources to educating students with disabilities.
Closing the achievement gap will require an immediate, multi-faceted approach that addresses the whole child in a more comprehensive way given individual need. Some of the common elements of a whole child-based program include: (1) teachers who are more highly trained and certified in scientific, research-based programs such as Orton-Gillingham; (2) availability of school wellness programs to promote physical and mental health; (3) child-centered curricula that permit hands on, active engagement; (4) high-quality early intervention, after school, and summer enrichment programs to enhance achievement and develop social skills; (5) parent and school community involvement focused on a team approach. This whole-child approach is a critical step toward curtailing Connecticut’s educational decline, particularly for children with disabilities.
Furthermore, students need individualized programs, tailored to their own needs. Too often, students with disabilities are placed in pre-established programs which poorly serve their individual needs.
Federal law permits each state to establish a Local Education Agency Risk Pool to protect school districts from exceptionally large costs imposed by the needs of one highly involved student, subject to conditions ensuring a maintenance of effort in state spending. 20 U.S.C. §1411(e)(3). Connecticut has responded by creating the Excess Cost grant in C.G.S. 10-76g(b) providing: “Any local board of education which provides special education … shall be financially responsible for the reasonable costs of special education instruction … in an amount equal to … four and one-half times such average per pupil educational costs of such board of education. The State Board of Education shall, within available appropriations, pay … any costs in excess of the local … board's basic contribution.” The appropriation for excess cost reimbursement is around $140 million and has been at that level for the last 7 years. This amount is about 72% of the total amount of claims submitted by local school boards, meaning that local school boards are receiving about 72 cents on the dollar for excess costs of an individual student amounting to more than 4.5 times the average cost of a pupil in the district. The average per pupil cost varies across the state from a low of just under $13,000 to a high of $42,000. The median figure is $18,354, resulting in an average excess cost threshold amount of $82,600.
Various bills are filed each year to lower the threshold amount (which can be as low as three times average per pupil costs under federal law) and to eliminate the appropriations cap. If the appropriation remains at $140 million, lowering the threshold amount will simply result in a lower percentage reimbursement for a larger number of filed excess cost claims. Whether any district gets more money under such a formula is purely conjectural, except that it is predictable that districts serving the most needy students will suffer a reduction in reimbursement. On average, however, all districts will get the same amount as they get now. What will change is that the protection afforded to districts for extremely high cost placements (some like the PACES program at the American School for the Deaf run $276,000 for a year-round program; the New England Center for Autism can be as high as $345,000 a year) will be much lower. Increasing the appropriation does not appear viable in the current budget setting.
SEEK’s principal concern is that the excess cost grant is the only state money that goes to local school districts directly to support special education. The excess cost grant supports high cost placements, but it does nothing to help local school districts build capacity to serve large populations of students with disabilities. For example, the gold standard for reading instruction for many children with learning disabilities is the Orton-Gillingham program. Very few districts employ teachers who have been certified in this program and hence cannot offer the type of reading instruction that can make a huge difference. Another example: a discrete trial ABA program for a young child with autism requires, often, a 1:1 behavioral therapist. Very few districts can afford to provide such programming, although it is the one intervention that has strong results. The excess cost grant channels all state support for special education to a very small number of extremely high need students. In so doing, the grant does nothing to help school districts create and run the type of programs that can make a huge difference for many other students with disabilities.
The cost of providing special education services has always been a major factor in both the individual decisions on programs for students and policy debates on the issue. In 2018 the Connecticut School Finance Project proposed a new model to deal with these costs. At the end of the last session, the Legislature created a Task Force to review the model and make recommendations. To date, the Task Force has not issued a report.
In simple terms the model is to create a captive insurance company to manage and stabilize the cost of special education to individual school districts. Under the proposal the money to be used for special education in each district will be paid into an insurance company along with all state and federal funds appropriated for special education. As schools provide special education services to individual students, the district would bill the insurance company which would reimburse the district for the total cost of the services provided.
Purportedly, this would protect the towns from having to deal with unexpected costs, especially those arising after the town’s school budget has been approved. The insurance scheme would protect districts from the situation in which a student with very high costs moves into the town or is identified mid-year. Educational budgeting would be made easier because the town’s insurance premium would be set prior to the adoption of the town’s budget.
Notwithstanding this posited benefit to town budgeteers, SEEK-CT opposes this proposal for the following reasons:
Cost: The insurance program will have administrative costs which will be funded by taking money from already strained special education budgets. Further, in order to be able to handle unexpected claims, the insurance company will need to build up the reserves required by state insurance law, again funding those reserves from special education funds. Neither of these added costs provide any additional benefit to student with disabilities.
Incentive to Reduce Services: Although the model guarantees that each district will be reimbursed for all costs it incurs during the year, it will do so with the knowledge that the premium cost for the following year will be based on prior year utilization. Moreover, insurance companies have adjusters, who will press districts to reduce costs. The result will be strong new pressure to cut costs, undermining the collaborative PPT process, mandated by federal law, which is supposed to determine appropriate programming for a student.
Exacerbating the Inequity Between Towns: Wealthier towns, when they choose to, are able to provide for more and better special education services that the cities and less affluent communities. While all a districts’ special education costs are to be reimbursed by the co-op based on the previous years’ expenditure, poorer districts will face stronger pressure to deny services or face sharply increased premiums for subsequent years if they provide a student with the full panoply of needed services and supports. Wealthier districts will continue to have the resources necessary to meet the cost of providing appropriate services.
Parents should play an integral role in the education of their children. In order for parents of students with disabilities to be full partners in their child’s educational decision-making process, they need to be able to observe what happens in to the classroom. Both the parent and the educational expert retained by the parent need to be able to observe both the current and the proposed program for the student with a disability. SEEK-CT understands the need for some limitations, including a prohibition on the parent or the parent’s expert interfering in the instruction or violating the confidence of other students in the room. Yet, currently many Connecticut school districts prohibit all parent observations or so limit them in time and in what the parent or the expert may observe as to render the observation unhelpful.
An effective balance is available. Massachusetts enacted legislation in 2008 which reads in part, “To insure that parents can participate fully and effectively with school personnel in the consideration and development of appropriate educational programs for their child, a school committee shall, upon request by a parent, provide timely access to parents and parent-designated independent evaluators and educational consultants for observations of a child’s current program and of any program proposed for the child, including both academic and non-academic components of any such program. Parents and their designees shall be afforded access of sufficient duration and extent to enable them to evaluate a child’s performance in a current program and the ability of a proposed program to enable such child to make effective progress. School committees shall impose no conditions or restrictions on such observations except those necessary to ensure the safety of children in a program or the integrity of the program while under observation or to protect children in the program from disclosure by an observer of confidential and personally identifiable information in the event such information is obtained in the course of an observation by a parent or a designee.” SEEK-CT supports Connecticut adopting similar legislation.
SEEK-CT’s members face obstacles to observation every day throughout the state. Without the ability to observe, or have their expert observe, parents are forced to accept, at face value, the reports of school officials, who often paint an unduly rosy picture of the student’s performance. Indeed, it is common for parents to be told that a student has mastered a skill which the student never exhibits at home. Further, school officials tell parents of services being provided which the student tells the parent do not exist. Only through observation can a parent gain comfort in what is going on in school and become able to participate, as an equal partner, in the process.
Restraint and seclusion are overused in Connecticut schools. More needs to be done to reduce the need for these types of aversive and extraordinary responses to maladaptive behavior. State data show that there were over 100,000 reported incidents of restraint and seclusion from 2014-2017. Most incidents of restraint/seclusion are preventable if school staff are provided with the training and support they need.
Pinning children down or isolating them and imprisoning them in small rooms are ineffective ways to manage behavior. These types of interventions are often traumatic for children, intensifying behavioral challenges in the long run. Restraint undermines the trust between the teacher and student, and students feel scared and abandoned when placed in seclusion. The experience is even more frightening and isolating for students who have been victims of abuse or violence.
Restraint and seclusion are prohibited in Connecticut except in unusual, emergency situations to prevent immediate or imminent injury to the student or others. However, what constitutes an “emergency” is highly subjective. Too often students are restrained or secluded for being disobedient or disruptive, in violation of the law. Whether used consistent with the law or not, repeated use of restraint or seclusion must be viewed as the failure of educational programming: it means that supports, educational methodologies, and placement are inadequate or inappropriate for the student.
To help reduce these incidents, Connecticut schools need to address the underlying causes of the inappropriate behavior. Those causes can include anxiety, frustration with skills deficits, including both communication and academic skills, and past trauma. School personnel who may be involved in using restraint or seclusion must receive comprehensive training in a research-validated program of positive behavior interventions and crisis management. If the use of a particular restraint or form of seclusion is approved for use with any student in an emergency or dangerous situation, all personnel involved with the student need to receive training in its appropriate use and dangers.
Last session the Legislature passed section 4 of Public Act 18-51 which introduced the concept of “exclusionary time out” (ETO) to the statute on restraint and seclusion (C.G.S. §10-236b). This concept is creating considerable confusion in districts. ETO is described as “a temporary, continuously monitored separation of a student from an ongoing activity in a non-locked setting, for the purpose of calming such student or deescalating such student's behavior.” Unlike incidents of seclusion, districts are not required to notify parents when ETOs are being used -- even if these are used repeatedly or for extended periods of time -- and are not required to report any ETO data to the state. SEEK-CT has seen numerous incidents in which ETOs are utilized not to calm the student but as punishment when a student is slow to complete work or is non-compliant. Some students report that they were prevented from leaving the ETO for lengthy periods of time.
The Legislature has passed strong legislation on restraint and seclusion. The Legislature must ensure that the statute is being enforced.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is premised, in part, on the Spending Clause, under which the federal government provides money to a state and, in exchange, the state agrees to comply with the federal statutory scheme in administering the program and spending the funds. Pursuant to the IDEA, the State of Connecticut annually submits a state plan under which Connecticut commits to complying with the federal requirements and ensuring that all educational programs in the state are under the general supervision of the State Department of Education. 20 U.S.C. §1412(a)(11). Indeed, if a local school board fails to comply with the requirements of the IDEA, the State Department of Education has the obligation to cut off funding to that local school district. 20 U.S.C. §1413(d)(1).
Parents of students with disabilities are often faced with aggressive actions by local school administrators curtailing the student’s right to an observations by an expert, an independent educational evaluation at public expense, a referral to an out of district placement, services of a qualified speech and language pathologist or behavior analyst, access to data to support ratings of an IEP, and dozens of other issues. Parents can utilize the complaint process, but investigations are slow, often cursory, biased in favor of local school boards, not publicized and fail to provide any remedy to the injured student. The State Department does not audit school districts and has no formal oversight program over local districts, absent a complaint. Further, the State Department of Education rides local districts to comply with certain trivial procedural requirements, usually as a result of a scolding from the U.S. Department of Education, but fails to insist that local districts meet the substantive requirements of the IDEA.
The Bureau of Special Education at the State Department of Education employs only 12 professionals plus the bureau chief. And, the Bureau has substantial administrative responsibilities, including preparation of the annual state plan, running the due process and mediation system, assembling data for the State Performance Plan, and approving private special education placements. With this size staff, the Bureau is unable to perform the oversight required by the federal statute. Moreover, the Department of Education sees itself as the management consultant to, rather than the regulator of, local school districts.
The Legislature has an important oversight role. SEEK-CT urges the Education Committee to exercise that role and, in so doing, press the administration to revitalize the State Department of Education and regularly audit local school districts to ensure compliance with the IDEA.
Schools must be safe havens from bullying, discrimination, harassment, aggression, violence and abuse. Safety is a necessary precondition to learning. The recent rash of school shootings is frightening, and schools are appropriately taking steps to prevent a recurrence. Still, the fear of school shootings must not transform school-safety policy-making decisions into exercises of coercive force. Instead, we can promote school safety by improving the school climate. Bullying, both by fellow students and by teachers, harassment, teen dating violence and punitive school disciplinary practices all create the alienation and anger that lead to violence in school. Many students do not feel safe at school.
Promotion of a multi-tiered system of support that integrates school crisis, safety, mental-health teams with Planning and Placement Teams will promote wellness, prevention and interventions to those students who require these services. As noted in the Report of the Office of the Child Advocate on the Shooting at Sandy Hook School, maintaining such supports in individual silos denies the need for a holistic approach and coordination of care. SEEK-CT believes that we cannot simply ignore the complex issues that arise when children feel threatened, exhibit maladaptive coping behaviors, (reactivity, aggression or social withdrawal) and or develop clinical disorders. School disciplinary practices, zero-tolerance policies, suspension, expulsion, the increased presence of law enforcement in school and school arrests contribute to the feelings of fear, rejection and alienation in some students. Children from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with disabilities are disproportionately targeted by these school policies which aim to punish rather than teach. This is later mirrored in rates of incarceration as persons with disabilities and from disadvantaged backgrounds comprise the bulk of the adult prison population. Schools need to end the practice of criminalizing students rather than educating them. Programs emphasizing social-emotional and behavioral health development that include trauma-informed practices and access to comprehensive school and community-based mental health services are not parenthetical to learning—they are essential. Key to establishing such a system includes ongoing, robust training in evidence-based practices for all staff.
Connecticut must determine its priorities—schools or prisons--pay now or pay later. A common response to budgetary shortfalls is to reduce the money earmarked for special education. This penny-wise, pound-foolish approach to funding education fails to appreciate that nurses, social workers, guidance counselors, school psychologists, etc. are often funded in special education budgets. Cuts to special education leave schools ill-equipped to provide comprehensive developmental or behavioral health supports to children. Focusing on supporting students who have been exposed to traumatic events and mitigating the effects of trauma, rather than punishing maladaptive behavior, will significantly improve the academic, social and behavioral outcomes for all students.
SEEK of CT is a social welfare organization, organized under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code. Donations to 501(c)(4) organizations are not tax-deductible for the individual or corporation making the donation. 501(c)(4) organizations are required to disclose certain information publicly, although we are not required to disclose the name and address of any contributor to the organization. Under this statute, we are permitted to lobby extensively and to participate in political activity in support of or opposition to candidates for office, as long as such election activities are not our primary activity