Harding High School in Bridgeport. The city's schools hosted the state's first mental health program to focus on trauma. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CTMirror.org file photo
Harding High School in Bridgeport. The city’s schools hosted the state’s first mental health program to focus on trauma. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CTMirror.org file photo
Harding High School in Bridgeport. The city’s schools hosted the state’s first mental health program to focus on trauma. Jacqueline Rabe Thomas / CTMirror.org file photo

For the third time in eight years, a group of Bridgeport parents who are frustrated that their children with disabilities are not getting the support they need in school have filed a complaint against Connecticut’s second-largest school district.

Following an investigation into complaints filed in 2013 and 2015, the Connecticut State Department of Education agreed that the district “systemically violated” state laws that were created to ensure students with special education needs are promptly identified and provided services.

“We always quote-unquote ‘win,’ and there have been some good decisions — but overall there’s not a lot of enforcement or monitoring,” said Kathryn Scheinberg Meyer, an attorney with the Center for Children’s Advocacy who filed the previous complaints and the one filed last Thursday with Connecticut Legal Services. “It’s never done in a way that is impactful and lasts. It’s almost just like a little spot check.”

Meyer points to the state Department of Education’s limited capacity to provide more oversight in Bridgeport — or other districts — since the department saw a steady decline in staffing levels over several years, though the level this fiscal year is back to the 2016 level. Gov. Ned Lamont’s recommended budget for the upcoming fiscal year would permanently eliminate several positions that are currently vacant because of retirements or staff leaving for other jobs.

Officials from CCA and the Office of the Child Advocate in January pleaded with members of the state Board of Education and the state Department and Education to look more closely at the data the department has been collecting to determine how students with disabilities are accessing education during the pandemic, especially those who have been learning remotely and are in opportunity districts.

They explained at the meeting that some of the districts where the families they work with live have chosen not to properly follow state-issued guidance regarding student engagement and resources for high-needs children, which is also what some special education attorneys said they were seeing toward the beginning of the school year.

Kathryn Meyer, an attorney who represents children with special education needs

The complaint made last Thursday highlights the stories of two middle school students and their parents, who have struggled to get their children the special education services their individualized educational plans mandate. At issue in Bridgeport now is the impact of teacher turnover and absences, the district not having a proper back-up plan to continue services, and delays in providing parents and their attorneys with proper documentation about whether services were provided.

One of the boys who has ADHD spent most of an entire school year with little added support, they allege.

“There was no human there to service the child for most of the year,” Meyer said. “If you have a teacher who is absent more than they are there, the district needs to find someone for this child.”

The complaint says the school district has a shortage of 19 special education certified staff, “which has resulted in a direct failure to provide IEP-mandated services to those students entitled to receive it … Little process has been made, and students continue to suffer.”

State data show that the number of children with significant disabilities in Bridgeport has increased significantly while the number of staff has not.

“We can confirm that we received the complaint, and our dispute resolution team is in the midst of reviewing and processing the complaint,” said Peter Yazbak, spokesman for the state Department of Education.

Jacqueline Rabe Thomas

Jacqueline was CT Mirror’s Education and Housing Reporter, and an original member of the CT Mirror staff, joining shortly before our January 2010 launch. Her awards include the best-of-show Theodore A. Driscoll Investigative Award from the Connecticut Society of Professional Journalists in 2019 for reporting on inadequate inmate health care, first-place for investigative reporting from the New England Newspaper and Press Association in 2020 for reporting on housing segregation, and two first-place awards from the National Education Writers Association in 2012. She was selected for a prestigious, year-long Propublica Local Reporting Network grant in 2019, exploring a range of affordable and low-income housing issues. Before joining CT Mirror, Jacqueline was a reporter, online editor and website developer for The Washington Post Co.’s Maryland newspaper chains. Jacqueline received an undergraduate degree in journalism from Bowling Green State University and a master’s in public policy from Trinity College.

Adria was CT Mirror's Education and Community Reporter. She grew up in Oakland, graduated from Sacramento State where she was co-news editor of the student newspaper, and worked as a part-time reporter at CalMatters. Most recently Adria interned at The Marshall Project, a national nonprofit news organization that reports on criminal justice issues. Adria was one of CT Mirror’s Report For America Corps Members.

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