District: Bridgeport teacher falsified special education plans for students with disabilities

Photo of Cayla Bamberger
Bassick High School, Bridgeport

Bassick High School, Bridgeport

Linda Conner Lambeck

BRIDGEPORT — A special education teacher at Bassick High School has been accused of falsifying special education plans for at least three students with disabilities and now faces dismissal.

An investigation found Kathleen Smith forged several legal documents that qualify students in public schools for special education services, the superintendent of schools and human resources director told Board of Education members recently. The individualized education programs, known as IEPs, outline the services and supports students with disabilities are entitled to under federal law.

“She has impacted their education, not just this year but going forward,” Denise Altro-Dixon, the district’s human resources director, said at a special meeting of the Board of Education. “She has deprived students of an education and services that they are more than likely in need of because she failed to properly do her job.”

By law, an IEP team of parents and educators meets annually to discuss a student’s progress, and every three years to assess if the student is still eligible for accommodations. A case manager then finalizes an education plan tailored to the child’s specific needs.

Smith, who had taught in the district for more than a decade, claimed at least three IEP meetings occurred before winter break this school year that, in fact, never took place, said school administrators.

Bridgeport Superintendent Michael Testani told Hearst Connecticut Media that Smith’s alleged transgression was an isolated situation. “Students are being serviced properly,” he said.

Joseph Raiola, Bassick’s principal, began an investigation into the allegations after winter break and enlisted Altro-Dixon and the Human Resources department, which opened its own inquiry. Smith had union representation throughout the process, they said.

Smith, a certified special education teacher, received official notice in February that her contract was under consideration for termination. According to policy, she then had 10 days to request a hearing before the Board of Education or an independent hearing council. She failed to do either, administrators said.

They also said Smith did not deny the allegations.

“She actually affirmed that these actions were taken,” Testani told the board.

Altro-Dixon said Smith later provided the defense that she pressed a wrong button on her keyboard, which would not explain the three-time oversight.

Smith could not be reached for comment or contacted through her union.

The district suggested a mutual separation, which Smith did not accept despite advice from her union, Testani told the school board. Rather, she proposed relinquishing responsibility of her classes but staying on the payroll, he said.

At the special meeting Wednesday, Testani made the recommendation to the Bridgeport Board of Education that Smith’s contract be terminated. The superintendent said he was following advice from the district’s attorney to consult with the board, rather than terminate Smith’s contract by himself.

“I believe strongly that we cannot allow our district to be lax on things like this,” said Testani. “This wouldn’t fly in Westport. This wouldn’t fly in Trumbull. It wouldn’t fly in any other suburban town. Why would we allow this to happen here in Bridgeport?”

“This is among the most serious infractions I can imagine,” said the district’s lawyer, Floyd Dugas. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen this in my career.”

Dugas has represented close to 30 school districts in the past 35 years, he said.

“It’s falsification of federal and state documents. It’s denying their students their rights under the law,” he said.

Altro-Dixon, too, emphasized the severity of the situation.

“This is not something we take lightly,” she told the school board. “I understand we are talking about someone’s livelihood. But I work for the Board of Education, I work for the children of Bridgeport. And my job is to ensure I get the best quality of staff in there, and I address those who fall far below the adequate line of performance — which she did.”

Raiola assured the board, parents and teachers that Smith’s misconduct did not represent a larger trend.

“We have done spot checks to ensure this wasn’t a practice carried on throughout the building,” he said, “and we found no evidence to support this happening anywhere else, except for with Ms. Smith.”

Raiola said that Bassick is in the process of or already has rectified errors with the students’ IEPs. The school administration said Smith will not be allowed in a Bridgeport school building until board members reach a decision about her employment.

Testani said he could consult with legal counsel if the board chooses not to take action.

Throughout the years she was employed by Bridgeport Public Schools, Smith received multiple correspondences about poor attendance and no or inadequate lesson plans, and has been on a plan of improvement, Dugas said at the meeting.

Smith’s possible termination comes as the district faces a dearth of certified special education teachers. A search of vacancies at Bridgeport Public Schools’ job board on Friday showed there were 29 open positions.

A growing number of students in Connecticut require special education services, while special education is among the state’s most consistent teacher shortage areas, according to a report from the Rockefeller Institute of Government.

The board requested to reconvene with Smith present, though she previously waived her rights to a hearing.

“She’s going to go to another district and do this again in another district,” said Altro-Dixon. “I’m asking the board to take a stand here on behalf of the students of Bridgeport, or students in any other district.”