On November 16, 2022, Denise Rice stood to speak at the tail end of a three- and half-hour Board of Education (BOE) meeting in Brookfield, Connecticut.
The mother of three adopted special needs boys, in addition to a biological child of her own, Denise lambasted the board for failing to properly staff the special education department with paraprofessionals and teachers and criticized the overall handling of special education in Brookfield schools.
“Special needs students and paraprofessionals in this district are treated with complete disrespect,” Rice said during the public comment period. “Under this administration it is the worst I’ve seen in my 20 years in the district.”
Denise’s son, Michael, a severely autistic boy she adopted from an institution at age 4 who is now attending Whisconier Middle School was her primary focus in this criticism, but she also has two other disabled sons whom she adopted. “I try to adopt the unadoptable, and it’s worked for me,” Denise said. “But, really, no child is unadoptable.”
Michael, now 11 years old, is verbally limited and, while he does not have behavioral issues, often ends up injured due to his condition. Michael has suffered broken bones and concussions from falling and requires a one-to-one paraprofessional to help him with his learning, using the bathroom and getting around.
Denise says Michael had been making good progress with his education in Brookfield, but she had become concerned by the loss of paraprofessionals and teachers since a new special education administration had taken over. She says she spoke up because she wanted the situation addressed.
Prior to speaking before the BOE, she met privately with Brookfield Superintendent John Barile and Special Education Director Amy DeNicola-Hickman in November, and says Barile asked her what she wanted.
“I said I want nothing,” Denise said in an interview. “I want this fixed. I want an extra para in that room. You’re short-staffed, someone is going to get hurt.”
“I’ve been in this, and I do understand that sometimes parents are unrealistic, sometimes school is unrealistic, and the idea is to come to a medium,” Denise said. “I understand you don’t always get what you want, and you shouldn’t. Honestly that would be billions of dollars if everybody got what they wanted, but there should be some working together and now there is not.”
Denise wasn’t the only one with concerns. Other special education parents had been speaking at nearly every BOE meeting, chastising the district for losing special education staff, failing to follow Individual Education Plans (IEP) and asking leadership to address systemic issues in the special education program. This came into sharper focus following an October 2022 incident that saw improperly redacted information on special education students inadvertently shared with another parent, violating privacy laws.
“Our children, teachers, staff and parents are suffering, the special education department is the absolute worst I’ve seen it in the last thirteen years and I’m here asking the board when is enough, enough?” said Erin Scalera, the mother of a special education student, as she spoke before the BOE in December of 2022 “begging” for an in-depth, independent audit of the special education system.
“I’m afraid that if you do not right the ship sooner rather than later, outplacements and lawsuits will soon follow, along with more of our staff abruptly leaving the district,” Scalera said.
Parents like Erin Scalera and Monique Matthews had been speaking regularly at BOE meetings regarding Brookfield’s special education system following Brookfield’s hiring of Amy DeNicola-Hickman as special education director and Robin Riccitelli as special education K-5 supervisor, which they say has led to problems with maintaining staff, particularly paraprofessionals.
Andrew Corea of Brookfield, who speaks regularly regarding special education issues in the town, said during a February 15, 2023, meeting that he had counted twenty special education personnel who have resigned and said the resignations were due to “two individuals in the administration,” before he was warned about speaking on personnel issues.
Matthews and Scalera have gone as far as creating an online petition signed by 376 parents, as of this writing, calling for the resignations of DeNicola-Hickman and Riccitelli. They presented it to the BOE on April 5, 2023.
“The overwhelming majority of parents contend that the Special Education Director and Pre-K to Grade 5 Supervisor are incompetent, non-communicative, ineffective, and exert control by force or fear in their positions as hired officials overseeing our public schools,” the petition reads, in part. “These people are damaging and are attempting to damage and discredit our hardworking teachers, paraprofessionals, and service provider reputations. We have had several staff members already leave. We need to stop this now before any more of our teachers and staff decide to leave for good.”
Denise Rice has been far less vocal at BOE meetings, but she has received push back from the administration the likes of which other parents say they’ve never seen.
Just a few weeks after Denise spoke during the November BOE meeting she received, through her lawyer, a contract offer from Brookfield’s administration potentially worth millions to move Michael out of the school system he had come to know as his “second home” and continue his education for the next 11 years out of district, something Denise had never requested, nor did she want.
The contract was lucrative, but included a catch: She had to shut up.
Under the terms of the agreement sent to Denise and her husband, Brookfield would pay tuition and transportation for Michael to attend a school out of district, which comes at a significant cost.
In exchange, Denise and her husband “shall cease all media communication about the Brookfield Board of Education and Brookfield Public Schools, any and all current, former, and future staff of Brookfield Public Schools, any current, former, and future programs offered by Brookfield Public Schools,” including “all forms of media communication, including but not limited to: future in-person communication at meetings of Brookfield Board of Education, state complaints to the Connecticut State Department of Education, communication with the press, communication on all known forms of social media, electronic mail, text messaging, and any all forms of communication that may emerge during the life of this agreement.”
Furthermore, Denise would have to remove any previously posted communications regarding the BOE or Brookfield school system “in any forum” and remove complaints made to the State Department of Education regarding any current, former, or future staff or programs.
In essence, she would be signing away the right to speak of Brookfield public schools, its staff and Board of Education for the next eleven years. If she agreed, according to the contract, the school system could “seek repayment of any funds already expended by the Board on behalf of the Student under the terms of this agreement,” which in Denise’s case could range over $1 million.
The costs of sending a special education student out of district are hefty. According to Brookfield’s latest school budget, there were 33 special education students out of district during the 2022/2023 school year at a cost of $2.6 million for tuition alone, not including transportation. That averages out to $79,849 per student.
But that’s just an average. According to a February 2022 expenditure detail published by the Brookfield BOE, a single additional student placed out of district added $124,000 to the budget.
Denise says that in Michael’s case, due to the severity of his disabilities, that dollar amount could range between $150,000 and $200,000 annually, which she would be liable for if she were to breach the communication clause in the contract. Basically, if she spoke about Michael five years from now, she could be on the hook for a million dollars.
Even if Michael’s tuition alone would fall along the average, the total cost for the contract would be $878,339, not including transportation. It’s an awful lot of money when Denise was only requesting more paraprofessionals, which, according to the Brookfield budget, come at a cost of roughly $33,000 per year.
According to the BOE’s October 2022 financial report, the school district’s budget was short by $743,000 with special education tuition and transportation as the single largest cause of the shortfall, taking up $406,024. Special education professional services accounted for another $146,685.
“They wanted to immediately outplace my son, which is a very high-ticket placement. Where are you getting the money? Where is that money coming from? It’s a lot of money to pull out of your back pocket,” Denise said.
Denise’s first reaction was to reject the proposal outright. In an email back to her attorney, Denise wrote: “This isn’t an agreement. This is blackmail for services for mike (sic). It goes way beyond a gag order on what they’ve done to him. They change it or deal off. I don’t ever want him out. I wanted them properly staffed and trained for him. This is crap.”
One of the problems with the original offered contract is it would not allow Denise to advocate for her younger disabled son. So, over some back and forth the contract was revised so that she could still speak out on her youngest’s behalf, but the gag order regarding Michael remained in place.
Denise says her husband never wanted to sign the contract either, but at the urging of her former attorney who said no one gets an eleven-year contract, they signed. They felt pressured by the school system and the attorney representing the BOE, Christine Chinni. Denise even went through her social media accounts and began deleting past posts.
“I was told that they were not going to hire more staff, that Michael would not be getting the proper support, so sign or whatever. So, we signed under duress,” Denise said.
“You’re looking at over $200,000 per year over the next eleven years, nobody gets a contract like this. I’ve spoken to special education attorneys; you don’t get a contract that doesn’t state that the school will reevaluate to bring them back into the system,” Erin Scalera said in an interview. “So, we have a disabled child and a school system that should be educating him and want to protect him that is now violating his basic rights. I just don’t know any other way to see it.”
“Typically, the contract is you can never disclose that Brookfield or whatever town it is couldn’t provide a free and appropriate education for your child. So, you could never say my son got outplaced because Brookfield couldn’t educate,” said Monique Matthews. “Not totally silencing a parent where she can’t speak at board of ed meetings, she can’t speak to future current or past staff members or parents, and she has another young child within the district. How do you take all her rights away?”
However, before Denise signed the contract on December 21, 2022, she spoke at a December 14 BOE meeting where she once again lambasted the administration for its treatment of paras and teachers, particularly in light of a special education program review being considered at the time that parents contend is merely skin-deep and won’t get to the heart of the problem.
In her concluding remarks, Denise said that Brookfield’s new $78 million school currently under construction will be like “putting lipstick on a pig,” if the underlying issues aren’t addressed, a comment she believes solidified the BOE’s determination to hush her up.
Just a couple of months after signing the agreement, according to emails sent from Denise’s attorney Robin Keller to the school district’s attorney Christine Chinni, the district accused Denise of breaching the contract, claiming that she had spoken at BOE meetings and posted on Facebook since she signed the contract, and that she “unduly delayed placement at an appropriate out of district school.”
Brookfield BOE meeting minutes do not show Denise making any comments between her signing the agreement and the email correspondence and Denise flatly denied making any Facebook posts.
“Ms. Rice has not posted at all on social media since execution of the settlement agreement, nor has spoken at a Board of Education meeting,” Keller wrote. “Please identify the postings or specific meeting you refer to in your contention.”
Furthermore, Denise also took issue with Chinni’s argument that she was holding up the outplacement process.
Denise says that after signing the contract, she immediately began to look for schools that might be suitable for Michael but was constantly coming up short. She didn’t want to place him with students suffering from behavioral issues because that was not his problem, nor would a child with his numerous conditions be safely situated in such an environment.
“He is not a behavior school student and I’m not saying that because he’s mine, anybody will tell you that. Also, because he came out of an institution, so anything that looks like a hospital is a trigger for him,” Denise said. “Those children are cognitively way higher than Michael. Michael is like a three-year-old.”
However, Denise had asked that a referral packet for Michael be sent to the St. Catherine Academy in Fairfield, a state-approved private special education school, which the district didn’t do until more than a month later.
According to correspondence, Denise’s attorney asked on December 15 that a referral packet be forwarded to St. Catherine’s, but by January 18, 2023, the school had yet to receive anything from Brookfield. When challenged, Chinni said the school was not approved under the contract, so it could not be considered. Denise’s attorney rebutted, arguing St. Catherine’s was on the state’s approved list for out of district placement and therefore, under the terms of the contract, Brookfield could obtain excess funding reimbursement from the state.
“The one month delay in the forwarding of the packet is due to apparent miscommunication between yourself and Ms. Amy DeNicola-Hickman, not the parent’s delay,” Keller wrote. “Hopefully the delay will not have a detrimental effect on further St. Catherine consideration.” Although the packet was finally sent to St. Catherine’s, Denise ultimately decided that school was not good fit for Michael.
Denise also claims the school district breached its own contract by failing to continue communicating with her regarding Michael’s IEP and his Planning and Placement Team (PPT).
Under the terms of the contract, while Denise was not allowed to speak at BOE meetings or to anyone regarding Michael’s treatment or post on social media, she was allowed to communicate “directly with administrative and school personnel as necessary, for the Student’s PPT and evaluation planning.”
But when Denise reached out to the district’s assistant superintendent requesting a meeting regarding Michael’s PPT meeting, she was told she had to go through counsel; when she reached out to Robin Riccitelli regarding the cancellation of her monthly team meeting, she never heard back.
Similarly, Denise says a request for some of Michael’s records she filed for on November 4, 2022, were never released to her — she is still awaiting them as of this writing — and Michael’s progress reports for January and February were withheld from her until April 6, 2023. According to Denise, the progress reports showed Michael meeting many of his goals, undermining the administration’s push to place him out of district.
With both parties accusing the other of breach of contract, Denise’s attorney sent an email to Chinni on February 13, informing her and the administration that that contract was now terminated, “effective immediately.”
But the administration’s attorney wasn’t having it, insisting that the district was going to enforce the contract anyway and continue moving to place Michael out of district. According to Denise, Riccitelli even hammered home the message during the PPT meeting that was finally held between Denise and Michael’s education team on March 29, 2023. Attorney Chinni sat in on the meeting via online video conference.
“Now my penalty for that, if Michael was out of district – he never left – would be me paying for out of district,” Denise said. “He never left. Since then, they have been harassing me to the point that I’m going to sue the district saying they’re enforcing this. First of all, it’s a terminated contract.”
Denise then filed a complaint with the Connecticut State Department of Education (CSDE) and filed for a due process hearing with the CSDE’s Bureau of Special Education to halt the administration from placing Michael outside the district. She also filed a complaint with the Brookfield BOE asking the members to hold Superintendent Barile accountable for making such a contract, went to the police in an unsuccessful attempt to file a harassment complaint against Chinni and filed a complaint against Chinni with the Connecticut Bar Association.
The BOE responded to Denise’s complaint through their attorney Dan Murphy who also indicated the district would seek to enforce the contract.
A special meeting was held by the BOE on March 15, 2023. Superintendent Barile, Assistant Superintendent Mahon, DeNicola-Hickman, attorney Chinni, attorney Dan Murphy and the rest of the board met under executive session for “discussion and possible action concerning enforcement of a settlement agreement and parent complaint.”
According to the meeting minutes, the BOE voted to “authorize counsel to take action consistent with the Board’s executive session discussion concerning enforcement of a settlement agreement and complaints under Board policy.”
Considering the contract terminated and now facing an administration and BOE seemingly hell-bent on sending Michael to another school, Denise began posting on social media and speaking at BOE meetings again, once again imploring them to better staff the special education program.
“The special ed administration will continue to cause a mass exodus of long term, invaluable staff because of unethical decisions,” Rice said before the board members on March 1, 2023. “When will enough be enough?”
Connecticut Inside Investigator (CII) reached out to both DeNicola-Hickman and Superintendent John Barile for an interview or to review questions. Both responded with “no comment,” but Denise quickly received correspondence from the administration’s attorney demanding she stop CII from publishing this article and threatening to file a lawsuit against her if this article moved forward.
After reiterating the contract language restricting Denise from any social media posts, conversations, speaking at BOE meetings or talking to the media, Chinni wrote: “If you commit any further breaches of this agreement, and/or if Mr. Fitch publishes anything in any forum about this matter, Brookfield will file a lawsuit against you in court to enjoin you from any further breaches of the agreement, and to seek damages against you.”
Chinni also wrote that Denise filing a complaint and a due process hearing with CSDE was a violation of her contract and that the district would seek to have them dismissed.
Denise says she’s ready to fight and file her own lawsuit against the district. “I’m kinda mad now,” Denise said. “I have every right to speak at Board of Ed. meetings, I have every right to file a state complaint. I would have never discussed the agreement if they didn’t keep pushing me and harassing me. It’s the pure harassment that pushed it to this level.”
Denise confirmed with Connecticut Inside Investigator that she wishes to make this matter public.
Shortly before Monique Matthews and Erin Scalera presented the petition calling for Riccitelli and DeNicola-Hickman’s resignation to the BOE, Riccitelli resigned from her position, as did another paraprofessional from Whisconier Middle School, according to the BOE agenda.
Despite having been much more outspoken during BOE meetings, Matthews and Scalera say they’ve never received the kind of push back or been offered an out of district placement for their children the way Denise has.
“I have spoken probably at almost every meeting for the past year since Amy and Robin have been hired because it’s going on about a year now and no, I have not experienced what Denise has experienced. And that’s probably because there’s nothing they can offer me,” Matthews said. “I don’t think there’s anything they can offer me to silence me from talking and exposing what’s going on.”
“We’ve been showing up at every board of ed meeting for well over a year and a half trying to force change, trying to do something with special ed and no matter what we do it falls on deaf ears,” Scalera said, who has also filed a complaint with the state’s education department and says she’s been waiting a long time for Freedom of Information requests filed with the administration.
Scalera says the administration is using a “one size fits all” approach to special education, something that doesn’t work for her son or other students, like Michael, who are facing much greater difficulties.
Brookfield’s latest school budget topped out at over $50 million for the 2023-2024 school year, a $2.1 million increase over the budgeted amount for 2022-2023. School enrollment has flattened after more than a decade of declines and the town is building a new elementary school for the aforementioned hefty sum of $78 million.
According to the state’s Edsight profile of Brookfield’s school district, the district had 90 full-time equivalent special education staff and paraprofessionals, expended $11.7 million on special education and had 32 students placed in other district schools or in private schools as of the 2020-2021 school year, the latest data available from the state.
But that was before the new special education administration took over and parents like Matthews, Scalera and Rice say the district has been losing staff since, including a school psychologist, prompting their calls for a new direction.
A review of BOE agendas, which list resignations and new hires, shows a churn of special education paras and teachers exiting and entering the school district. The reasons for resignations were listed mostly as transfers to other districts, personal reasons or retirements.
The Brookfield school system is currently undergoing an audit of its special education services and groups of special education parents are meeting with representatives from CREC Resource Group, which was contracted by the board for the special education review.
Monique Matthews says the district needs transparency and trust in its special education program.
“Brookfield has a major problem with not holding any staff member ever accountable. So, they need to gain that back, they need to gain trust back, they need to hire the right people and be transparent and hold these staff members accountable for not doing their jobs,” Matthews said.
“I have a child that loves the community, he would be devastated if we moved,” Erin Scalera said. “But what brought me here was the schools and what would make me leave is the schools and that in itself is horrifying, and my kids are doing okay. But my son is not being serviced in special ed right now because they don’t do it, they don’t do what they’re supposed to do.”
Despite those, perhaps small, steps forward in addressing concerns within Brookfield’s special education system through the CREC review, Denise is still left fighting a David and Goliath battle, pitting herself and her son against a district with a $50 million budget and attorneys determined to enforce the terms of the contract, even if it’s not what she wanted nor what she believes is best for her son.
“They really can’t lock him out of the school,” Denise said. “The idea is always try to keep the kid, when possible, in their own little community because when they go out, they see people. As disabled as Michael is I can’t tell you how many times when we’re out these typical kids run up to him, and they talk to him. They’re so happy to see him because they see him in school, and he yells ‘Hi!’ and he’s all happy. And you want to remove him from his community to shut me up? Clearly, it’s not working, clearly it hasn’t worked.”
“It’s a personal vendetta,” Erin said. “I don’t know how Denise is going to afford to fight this. I mean, she’s going to, she’ll do whatever she has to for her children, but they’re backing a parent up against a wall and violating her first amendment right to speak. There’s no doubt there’s intimidation going on.”
April 30, 2023 @ 9:32 am
I have no vested interest in this situation, however, I find this to be very one-sided and biased. Paraprofessionals and Special Education teachers are very hard to find and keep as they have many options open at this time. Additionally. I would argue that many leave the field entirely due to the unreasonable demands put on them by parents. Take a look on CTREAP and see how many administrative special Ed. teacher and paraprofessional openings there are.
May 1, 2023 @ 3:40 am
Did you miss the attempts to silence the parent with an illegal agreement?
If the outplacement was per the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) there would be no need for non-disclosure terms. It was not part of IDEA and placement in the district makes the most sense, as the district has argued the prior 6 years.
The SPED director and Superintendent want her and her accurate criticisms of their failures to go away. That is discretionary spending for the personal benefit of them being shielded from genuine feedback that informs the public of their actions.
That is dangerous, unethical, and seeking reimbursement from the state could be fraud.
But they certainly harassed her.
There are a lot of skeletons in the closets for Superintendent John Barile and SPED director Amy DeNicola-Hickman.
They are currently under federal investigation for a few issues at the high school.
May 1, 2023 @ 10:17 am
I’m a parent in the district with a kid heading to BHS in a few short years. I’ve heard rumblings of issues at the high school, but never any details. I know you probably can’t share details on a public forum, but is there any way for parents to ascertain more info about what is actually going on there??
As for the special Ed program, I knew there were issues but I had no idea it was to this level. This is upsetting and maddening and I feel so much for these students. Kudos to their parents for fighting the good fight.
Never Giving Up
April 30, 2023 @ 3:56 pm
Kudos to the parents who NEVER give up fighting for their children! I have a tremendous amount of gratitude and respect for you. Similarly, I had an issue with my daughter and CCSU (not special education related though). For 2+ years I personally investigated, researched and spoke out about the breach of their own Code Of Conduct. Our case fell on deaf ears too. CII covered my story with the facts and sensitivity. I will never give up fighting for my daughter’s rights. Parents who don’t have to challenge the “education system” may never understand. However once we’re in that trenches of injustice we never loose sight of the victory ahead. We just keep fighting the battle. Do what is RIGHT for our children. Thank you for sharing this story.
June 5, 2023 @ 1:08 pm
Terrible situation and a worse use of financial resources! No one wins!
May 1, 2023 @ 2:45 pm
When you are the parent of a child with special needs, you are the First and sometimes the OLNY advocate for that child.
May 2, 2023 @ 8:58 am
“The mother of three adopted special needs boys, in addition to a child of her own” They are all her own kids! Talk about offensive. I couldn’t even read past it.
May 2, 2023 @ 10:07 am
Good morning Jayson. Thank you for your comment. The phrasing was approved by Ms. Rice prior to publication, however, we added the word “biological” in response to your feedback. Hopefully you’ll have a chance to read the rest of the investigation. If you have any additional notes, comments, or questions, please post them here or email me directly at [email protected]
May 2, 2023 @ 11:06 am
I can tell you Ms. Rice does not use a qulaifier. Please do read the article and share with friends, neighbors, and colleagues.
It is important as many people know what Brookfield Public Schools is doing to her. Specifically the disgraceful Subparintendent John Barile, SPED Director Amy DeNicola-Hickman, Lyin’ and Bribin’ Bob Bleden (Chair of Brookfield BOE), and the rest of the Brookfield Board of Education.
Feel free to reach out to the Brookfield BOE at [email protected] and express your opinion. You might ask that they cancel the agreement, retract their threat to sue Ms. Rice, and cease and desist on any harassment toward Ms. Rice, her child, and family. Perhaps suggest that Mr. Barile and Ms. DeNicola-Hickman be separated from their employment with Brookfield Public Schools.
While it is often not kind to judge others, this is an opportune time to pass judgement on the Brookfield BOE and Administration.