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Parents of CT students with disabilities struggle to meet with school leaders

Cotto and her daughter Isabel leave home to drive to school.
Shahrzad Rasekh
CT Mirror
Cotto and her daughter Isabel leave home to drive to school. 

For Connecticut parents with special needs children, planning and placement team (PPT) meetings with their school district are a barrier to a smooth education experience.

WSHU’s Ebong Udoma spoke with CT Mirror’s Jessika Harkay to discuss her article, “For CT parents, special ed meetings with schools are ‘a battlefield,’” as part of the collaborative podcast Long Story Short.

WSHU: Hello, Jessika. You say Connecticut parents of children with disabilities describe the yearly meeting with school officials as a battlefield. Is that why you decided to do a deep dive into this?

JH: Yeah. So it was interesting how the story came about. I was actually hosting a panel at a special education conference late last year. And we opened the panel up to parents to ask some questions to lawmakers of experts. And one of the women who I ended up using in my story is Jennifer Cotto. She was saying it is so frustrating going into PPT meetings, you always feel ignored.

WSHU: PPT meetings, which stands for Planning and Placement Team. That's what they call these meetings for children with disabilities.

JH: Yep, exactly.

WSHU: And what do those meetings determine?

JH: So those meetings determine the educational services. So they just start with the conversation with parents in that first meeting of, 'Hey, we've identified a few patterns or behaviors that may require special education,' then they undergo testing. After that, they come back and talk about what your student needs in the school system to succeed, ideally.

WSHU: Now, tell us a little bit more about Jennifer Cotto. She's from Watertown. What was her experience?

JH: Yeah, she was talking a lot about just feeling belittled and ignored. She said that her daughter, although being diagnosed with autism, is very high functioning; she can hold a pencil, she can speak, she can articulate her ideas, but there are still certain things that her daughter needs. So she was just talking about a lot of times when she would go to her district and say, 'Hey, the reason my daughter is doing so well is because we have outside services.' But the district kind of just brushed her to the side and said, 'No, we just think that maybe she can grow out of it, maybe that we're diagnosing her too early.' And Jennifer's like, there's no way you can diagnose a child with autism too early.

So she was just talking a lot about her experience of feeling like she was always ignored, especially because her daughter was doing so well in the school system in pre-K. So after those initial conversations with her, I just started asking experts, lawyers, advocates, and just saying, 'hey, is this a widespread problem?' And pretty much everyone was saying, yes. It really depends on the district and what director of special education you get, but a lot of the time, it really is hard to kind of navigate and feel like an equal teammate in these meetings.

WSHU: But there's a larger problem that seems to be responsible for many administrators' attitudes. And that is the cost. Now you say that Connecticut spends about $2.7 billion statewide a year on special education. How does that play out in the local districts?

JH: Yeah, I think that's a problem that we've been seeing grow, especially recently, as this population of students with disabilities also is growing. And so first, we're seeing that teacher salaries obviously are one of the biggest parts of a school district's budget. So you need to hire more teachers who are trained in special education and can handle these students. That's one of the aspects. But the second part of that, also, is if a student has serious needs and can't be educated in the district or can't have their needs met in the district, now you have to outsource them. And that could be tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars, sending these students to get their free public education elsewhere, whether that's a private school, a different district or even out of state.

WSHU: I was amazed when I saw that Bridgeport actually has the highest number of special ed students. How does that affect the district's budget?

JH: That kind of goes back to what I was just saying: first, it's a huge staffing problem, trying to hire more staff to accommodate these classrooms and these individualized needs. Right? The first problem with a budget is just being able to pay the people educating these children. The second part, again, is outsourcing. If a student can't get their needs met in the district, you can pay 1000s of dollars to send them elsewhere, which is what the second half of that special education cost is.

WSHU: How does this affect the parents? Because you have a quote here about the squeaky wheel gets the grease, that means that the more vocal the parents are, the more they can get services for their children. How does that play out?

JH: I think it's particularly interesting when you're looking at students of color or those who come from low-income backgrounds where a parent may not have the time to sit down with and do binders and binders of research, right? There's a quote in my story that talks about just the jargon behind education and the legal jargon of, oh, what can we provide our students with what is available to me? And that takes a lot of research. Even with me, I was going through these pamphlets, and I was looking up words, and I was confused as well. So, let alone a parent who also has the stress of just trying to keep food on the table and a house over your head, on top of trying to support your child, but who also has these educational challenges.

I think that one of the interesting aspects of stories like this is just looking at how some people do have the resources, some people do have the background, the parents I quoted in my story said they were familiar with the systems because of their previous work professionally. But then there's parents who may not have that background, and they're trying to navigate this system, and they may not be able to afford an advocate or a lawyer to advocate on their behalf. So I think that's an interesting conversation of just how this impacts children and families who may not have the means or the time to research special education and the rights.

WSHU: You talked with the state education officials, and there are some state resources to try and help out with this; what exactly do we have?

JH: So the biggest thing is the Department of Education. They have a page on their website that kind of has, I think it's called like the Bureau of Special Education or something like that, where it has a direct line where you can talk to people. And they talked about a few other partnerships that they have across the state with different advocacy groups. Another group that was mentioned to me is called PATH, I think. And they also offer free resources to people if you don't have the means to afford an advocate, they offer an advocate for you. So there's different things. It's just a matter of finding the right research. And I think that also part of the conversation is just having these resources more available, rather than you having to search for them, making them more easily accessible.

WSHU: And that was part of what was involved in legislation that was being considered this year. Although I don't think much has been done, it seems more like a task force to look into this. Could you just tell us a little bit more about that, Jessika?

JH: Yeah, so the task force was started back in 2021. Their responsibility is first just looking at the cost of special education, but also looking at the over and under-identification of students and the reasons behind that. So they're expected to present their findings to the legislature this year, later this year. And then next year, before the session starts, they're supposed to offer recommendations, which I think will be really interesting. But then we saw legislation passed this year that was looking at just PPT meetings again, and the notification of them. So now state law will require a five-day notice for those meetings, but then also the presentation of those rights when they receive that notice.

WSHU: How about trying to get educators to have a better dialogue with parents? What has been done about that?

JH: Yeah, so one thing I've heard is that the problem isn't necessarily with educators themselves. I think most parents are happy and can see the effort that teachers in the classroom are making toward helping their students by providing these resources. But the big dilemma was with these administrators, who are kind of middlemen in the top-to-bottom hierarchy, right? And so the biggest thing is just transparency, from what I hear.

If you can't provide a resource, tell us why and tell us what you can do and set or how we are working towards improvement. Just having those open conversations and those dialogues and I think another part of that is just also how you speak with one another. I was just talking to someone this morning, from feedback on this story, saying, we're told here's when the PPT meeting is. The time and place, just straight and told that without even being asked, ‘Hey, does this work with you? What is a good time?’ So I think it's just kind of reframing conversations that may be taken some type of way, or feel like there's that unequal power dynamic, even though parents are supposed to be that equal team member. So that's kind of what I've been hearing. It's just changing these conversations and how we speak to one another.

As WSHU Public Radio’s award-winning senior political reporter, Ebong Udoma draws on his extensive tenure to delve deep into state politics during a major election year.
Molly is a reporter covering Connecticut. She also produces Long Story Short, a podcast exploring public policy issues across Connecticut.