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Testimony of Special Education Equity for Kids in Connecticut (SEEK) To Committee on Education

Andrew Feinstein March 8, 2023

Chairman McCrory, Chairman Currey, Ranking Members Berthel and McCarty, members of the Education Committee,

My name is Andrew Feinstein and I am the Legislative Chair of Special Education Equity for Kids of Connecticut (SEEK). SEEK is an organization of parents, professionals, advocates and attorneys working to support the needs of students with disabilities in the state. I appear today to testify on two bills:

Committee Bill No. 1

The bill is entitled transparency in education, but it covers other matters as well. Further, it fails to cover areas in which transparency is sorely needed.

Section 1 deals with a chart of accounts. We need a clear and unambiguous directive to require each local school district, charter school, academy, and CTECS to account for their educational spending in exactly the same way. Only with such a uniform system of accounts can we compare spending between districts and can citizens know where their education tax dollars are going. We can also understand, on a year over year basis, how the composition of school spending changes. The bill takes a baby step. We need a bold step forward to mandate a uniform system of accounts for all school districts. It seems to us that the system should be designed by the Auditor of Public Accounts, not SDE.

Sections 7 and 8 mandate training to local board of education members. More is needed. Over the last few years, we have seen several local boards of education exceed their authority by getting involved in managing staff members under the authority of the Superintendent, by getting involved in individual special education cases, and by micromanaging the teaching in the schools. The role of the board of education is simply to approve the budget, hire and fire the Superintendent, and adopt policies of general application. There is no law explicitly delimiting the role of local boards. We need such a law now. In the interim, SDE, in cooperation with CABE, should be directed to prepare minimum training standards for board members that specifically describes the role of Board members.

The changes made concerning alliance districts are, again, a small step in the right direction. We need bolder action to provide the resources these districts need.

What is more critical to SEEK is what S.B. 1 is missing. Federal law mandates a state special education complaint process. SEEK requests that the bill be amended to require the State Department of Education (1) publish promptly the policies and procedures it uses to accept, investigate, and act on complaints filed; and (2) index and publish in a lightly redacted form all complaints filed, all investigatory reports, and all correspondence following up on mandated corrective action. We have seen numerous cases in which SDE has found one district in violation through a particular action, but other districts continuing the same practice because the other districts have no notice of the SDE’s action. Further, we want to know those districts that are subject to a high number of complaints. A high number of complaints ought to compel SDE to conduct on-site monitoring. Further, the bill should provide that SDE publish, without redaction, all correspondence with districts concerning any targeted monitor that occurred.

Raised Bill No. 1166

Connecticut’s anti-bullying laws have been a signal failure. They have done nothing to reduce the level of bullying. In fact, the amount of bullying has increased and broadened to new venues since the passage of the law. The laws have not reduced teen suicides due to bullying. They have led to inconsistent enforcement and reporting. They have served to further alienate some of the most alienated kids in our school systems. They have frustrated parents seeking information about the results of any investigation of reported bullying. And, perhaps most tragically, the anti-bullying laws have undermined in a profound way the development of resilience in children.

The Legislature told the SEL Collaborative to review sections 10-222d to 10-222p, inclusive, of the general statutes relating to bullying and safe school climate plans, in section 7 of P.A. 21-95. A working group of the Collaborative has done so and come to recommendations contained in Raised Bill No. 1165. The proposal moves us away from the investigate-prosecute-punish model now in practice to a structure that recognizes that the bully may be in as serious need of services as the victim. Bullying needs to be seen as a cry for help. We do not stop bullies from bullying by bullying them. Indeed, by asserting power over bullies, we are modeling the very behavior we want to end. And we do not help the victims of bullying by treating them as hapless victims. Instead, we need to use any instance of abuse of power as an opportunity for restoration, for resilience, for reconciliation, for support. Bullying is not a call for punishment; it is a unique teachable event.

The bill properly focuses on building positive and supportive school climates, shifting the focus away from the quasi-criminal nature of the current anti-bullying laws. Schools need to continue and indeed expand their efforts to track down incidents of meanness, bullying, and ridicule both in school and virtually. Educators need to be thoroughly trained in recognizing the precursors of bullying and techniques for intercepting it at the earliest stages. Students need to know they will be held accountable for such behavior, but the accountability needs to be aimed at seeking the root cause of the behavior, at undoing the damage done and rebuilding relationships, not at suspending or expelling the student engaged in such activity. Schools need to track, collect, report, and publicize data on school climate. The current reporting on bullying is so episodic and so inconsistent that no meaningful conclusions can be reach from it.

The biggest complaint about the current law from parents is that they are left in the dark about the results of bullying investigations and consequences. This is because school districts take an unjustifiably overbroad view of the requirements of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). If we are committed to transparency in education, we need to clarify exactly what needs to be keep confidential. This is an example of a law passed to protect parents that has been used to undermine their rights.

Connecticut can lead the nation in moving from the current failed approach to bullying to an approach that focuses first and foremost on building positive school climates.

We thank you for the opportunity to testify. I am happy to answer any questions and SEEK wants to continue to work with this Committee.