Following an investigation into allegations that a developmentally disabled child was mistreated by a para-professional who lacked training in a Hartford school, the district has agreed to take corrective action and Connecticut Child Advocate Sarah Eagan said the incident underscores just how important it is to properly fund special education training for both school staff and parents.

According to a letter dated April 20 from the Office of the Child Advocate (OCA) to Hartford Schools Superintendent Dr. Leslie Torres-Rodriguez, between September 2020 and February 2022, the OCA “received multiple complaints about the educational programming being provided to a young child” who was of elementary school age and diagnosed with Autism.

The child’s name has been redacted from the OCA’s letter, and will hereafter be referred to as [the child], and neither the school nor the para-professional who was the subject of the allegations were named in the documents.

The letter says that in December 2021, “the OCA was notified that there had been a DCF Careline report made against the para-professional assigned to work with [the child] as a 1:1 for allegations of abuse. Allegations included that the para-professional assigned to [the child] did not ‘engage with’ [the child] and would ‘scream’ at [the child]; was ‘dragging [the child] by his foot across the floor,’ that she ‘push[ed] on his forehead to have him get away from her,’ she ‘yells and gets frustrated a lot,’ doesn’t adequately address his elopement and inappropriately restrains him.”

The letter further says that during one of the related interviews with the state Department of Children and Families, a Hartford Public Schools staff member who provides services to the child opined that the child’s “academic needs are not being met at the school.”

The letter says the para-professional was interviewed by DCF and stated that she began working with [the child] in September 2021 as his assigned 1:1. Despite that designation, she was not familiar with his Individual Education Plan (IEP) or his Behavior Intervention Plan. She acknowledged that she was not trained in restraints. She also stated that she did not receive “any feedback from special education teacher on ways to work with [the child].” During [the child’s] interview by DCF, he was only able to answer yes or no to questions. He answered “yes” when asked if the para-professional yelled at him and touched his wrist.

The OCA monitors agencies that are charged with the protection of children throughout Connecticut, and ensures they protect children’s rights and promote their best interests. The school district agreed to include parent counseling and training as a related service within the child’s IEP, according to the OCA.

The Special Education Office for Hartford Public Schools did not respond to request for comment on this story.

A federal regulation in place says that parent counseling and training includes helping parents understand their children’s special needs – and helping them get skills to allow them to support their child’s IEP. The law says parent counseling and training should be provided by the district as required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education, an OCA release said.

“Mistreatment of a child is never acceptable,” Eagan said. “Critical to preventing mistreatement of children with disabilities is ensuring that staff are adequately trained and supervised.”

Based on the school district’s commitment to take corrective actions, the OCA said that some parents may be unaware of the availability of the service to support parents as needed – and that potentially eligible parents are not reaching out for help that is within their rights.

Federal law requires all Connecticut school districts to ensure that all teachers, related service providers, and any other service provider responsible for the implementation of a child’s IEP to have access to the student’s IEP and be informed of specific responsibilities related to implementation; and specific accommodations or requirements in it.

“Around the state, what we find when we work on cases, is that most parents are not aware of their right to training,” said Eagan, who oversees her office’s investigations, public reporting, and advocacy work. “For kids with more significant disabilities, parent training really is a must. And, we also must make sure that school districts have the resources to fulfill it. We also want to make sure the para-professionals are getting the help they need from the school.”

Eagan said that their investigation found that proper training and support for para-professional staff and parents may have helped to avoid the pattern that developed between the child and the para-professional.

Schools need to ensure “that para-professional educators have access to the children’s IEPs, behavior plans and anything else they need to understand the disability and their role in helping to educate the child,” Eagan said. “These are issues that are not unique. These are issues that happen throughout the state.”

All of the information found in the investigation, she said, underscores how important it is to know that special education is underfunded.

“One of the systemic remedies that we really need is to fully fund special education,” Eagan said.

Para-professional educators are core providers for our children with significant disabilities and they tend to be underfunded, underpaid, and undertrained, Eagan said.

“In this case, DCF found the para-professional was not properly trained and supported. That’s not an isolated finding. Para-professionals need the support and the resources to do their jobs the best they can.”