Notes From the Board Table: Special ed response

I’d like to begin this week’s “Notes from the Board Table” by sharing some of the comments I offered during our April 24 board meeting, which were in response to one parent’s widely circulated allegations of Board of Education impropriety:  

“The Wilton schools are not offering “hush money” to anyone. Such allegations are offensive to me, to Dr. Richards and to my colleagues on the Board of Education. And as much as I wish I could offer a point-by-point rebuttal to the accusations made by one Wilton parent, I am bound by legal constraints from speaking publicly.  This is because individual students and their educational status are involved, and these children deserve — and are guaranteed by law — a right to privacy.

I would though, like to offer a general statement with regard to the Board of Education’s role in decisions about our special education students and the services provided to them. It’s quite simple. The Board has NO involvement in determining specific special education placements or programming. Instead, the day-to-day operation of the district’s special education programs is the responsibility of the superintendent, who by statute is the chief executive officer of the Board of Education. The board’s role in special education is budgetary. We are responsible for ensuring adequate funding is available. Period.

With regard to the specific case that’s received so much media attention; the board has had no direct involvement or conversations with the administration about responding to the parent’s claims. Instead, and as per regular procedure, the board has been assured by Dr. Richards, our director of special services and our outside legal counsel that the district has acted well within federal and state-mandated policies and protocols for responding to parent concerns.

And while it may be tempting to jump to conclusions based on what has been reported thus far in the media, please understand that what has been made public is a very, very small part of what is certainly a highly complicated and private matter.

Please keep in mind that our administrators have decades of experience in the area of special education, and have dealt with thousands of special education students in the course of their careers. In other words, we have full confidence in their handling of this and every other special ed case. I regret that this case is playing out publicly, and that it has consumed such a vast amount of district, board and town time and resources, but that decision was certainly beyond this board’s control. I’m happy to take the beating to protect the privacy of the families who legitimately utilize our special education services in the education of their children.

I do not plan to address this issue on a continuing basis, but felt a statement was necessary, given that the allegations have been reported on publicly and have generated questions among residents.

With respect to the matter of indoor air quality, the board received a summary report regarding the comprehensive IAQ testing that took place at Miller-Driscoll during March. Representatives from TRC Environmental Corporation (TRC), an industrial hygiene/environmental consulting firm, reported extensive testing was done to assess radon levels and typical comfort parameters (temperature, humidity, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and indoor air particulates), as well as microbial levels (mold/spore counts). Every testing sample was within acceptable guidelines for schools, and no follow-up testing is necessary. “Miller-Driscoll as surveyed is safe for student and staff occupancy,” TRC wrote in its summary letter. A detailed report, containing all laboratory results and analyses, is expected this week, and will be posted on the district website as soon as it becomes available.

The TRC testing was requested by the Board of Education because of claims of unhealthy IAQ at Miller-Driscoll made by the same Wilton parent referenced above. The board commissioned the tests at a cost of $26,000 to the district. The TRC findings were in addition to radon testing conducted in February by Cardno ATC, which also reported results well within federal and state guidelines.

As I have said before, we never had reason to suspect there were indoor air quality problems at Miller-Driscoll. I hope these test results will put this issue to rest, and dispel any concerns that might have resulted from the false charges about the school’s air quality.

With regard to our budget, the board was pleased to have an opportunity to speak directly with nationally recognized forensic psychologist Dr. David Bernstein during our meeting about the Wilton Security Task Force (WSTF) recommendation that the schools hire both an additional school resource officer and a “threat assessment coordinator.” Together these positions as proposed would add two new headcount and impose $145,000 in new spending on our budget. While the board is committed to providing all resources necessary to ensure the safety of our schools, we do of course have an obligation to be mindful of our overall headcount and how our scarce dollars are spent.

Dr. Bernstein shared his opinion that while he “absolutely” recommends the creation of a threat assessment coordinator position, it is not necessary for that to be a full-time position. Instead, Dr. Bernstein recommended  Wilton consider doing what many other “low-risk” schools in our area have done, which is to restructure an existing staff position to incorporate “threat assessment coordinator” responsibilities.

The threat assessment coordinator would be charged with “being the eyes and ears” for identifying potentially troubled students or staff. The coordinator would also investigate “red flag” events and any potential “at risk” individuals, and take appropriate action. Dr. Bernstein reports the Wilton schools experience, on average, two to four cases per year that require escalated attention. In his opinion, that caseload could be effectively addressed by training existing mental health staff, and expanding the role of a current staff psychologist.

Because the WSTF presented such a compelling case for hiring a threat assessment coordinator, the board has scheduled an additional review session with the task force. That meeting will take place on Thursday, May 1 at 6 p.m. in the WHS Professional Library. The public is welcome to attend and the board will vote on a final 2014-15 operating budget following that discussion.

Lastly, Wilton High School was ranked the sixth top public high school in Connecticut, and number 277 nationwide by U.S. News and World Report!