DARIEN, Conn. – Darien’s Board of Education has hired a private mediator to handle parents’ concerns with Darien Public Schools’ special education programs.
Mary H.B. Gelfman was hired to handle informal hearings between parents and staff. A former teacher and Ridgefield Board of Education member, Gelfman was an independent hearing officer on special education claims for the state Department of Education for more than 20 years before her recent retirement.
After receiving formal complaints from parents, the state ruled that Darien’s staff training materials had information that was “inconsistent” with state laws regarding parental involvement in special education plans.
Gelfman’s hiring, which was recommended by the board’s attorneys and Andrew Feinstein, the attorney representing the parents, is one step in the school board’s response to the complaints.
Parents can now request to a hearing with Gelfman if they feel their child “was either improperly denied eligibility for special education or improperly denied special education or related services necessary to provide the child with a free appropriate public education,” Schools Superintendent Stephen Falcone said in a statement Tuesday.
Under the process set up by Gelfman, after parents file for an informal review, district representatives and parents can arrange to meet for a hearing with the attorney. After she has studied the students’ records and information supplied by parents and met with the groups, she will offer a non-binding recommendation. Parents are then free to accept the recommendation or seek a formal review with the state.
“This informal process is entirely voluntary and will be commenced for an individual student only at the request of a parent,” Falcone said Tuesday. “The district will not be requesting informal proceedings with regard to any individual student cases.”
The district has posted related forms and Frequently Asked Questions on its website.
The school board hopes the informal process will help deal with problems parents have in the future, but the district is also continuing its research into past practices. Attorney Sue Gamm has been hired by the town to look into issues from the past school year.
Gamm plans to meet with parents in a parents-only meeting on Oct. 2 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Board of Education headquarters. She has also posted online surveys for parents and staff members to share their experiences with Darien’s special education department, either anonymously or on the record.
“The surveys are contained on an independent server and only my assistant and I can access the results,” Gamm said in a statement Tuesday. “Survey respondents may voluntarily choose to provide their names and contact information, or they may provide no identifiable information.”