The Evolution of Connecticut Special Education- An Updated Study After Fifteen Years

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In 2004, Kate Belf Becker, an Educational Studies major at Trinity College, completed her senior thesis entitled “Who Prevails in Special Education and Why?” The inspiration behind Belf Becker’s study emerged from her internship experience at the Connecticut Department of Education’s Bureau of Special Education and Pupil Services Due Process Unit. She was able to examine hearing officer decisions in order to investigate her questions regarding which side emerged victorious in hearing decisions and the factors that contributed to their triumphs (Belf Becker 1). Becker studied hearings relating specifically to autism that occurred between 1998-2003. Belf Becker’s study intrigued me for a variety of personal reasons. My brother was diagnosed with autism in 2001, which falls between Belf Becker’s time frame of cases she studied. However, since approximately fifteen years have passed since this study was conducted, numerous Connecticut hearing decisions have been determined and various federal laws have either been created or edited to reflect the concerns of families whose children with autism receive special education services. The following research aims to examine certain aspects of Belf Becker’s study such as which side prevailed and whether the case concerned a private or public placement. This research examines all of these aforementioned factors, and additionally seeks to explore other aspects of Connecticut hearing decisions related to autism such as how many students are eligible for free or reduced lunch in the district, and the percentage of students with disabilities in the district the case takes place in. Recent policy decisions at the national level are also examined. The purpose of this research is to discover if policies at the national level, as well as any of the previously described factors affected hearing decisions in Connecticut since Belf Becker’s study.

This paper studies fully adjudicated Connecticut hearing decisions that related to autism from 2009-2019 since fully adjudicated decisions prior to 2009 were not available. There were 172 cases in total (including cases not concerning autism), but this study examines a sample consisting of 15 percent of the total cases, with all 15 percent specifying a case of autism.  Belf Becker was able to identify a variety of common themes within the court cases she studied. This included whether the Board or the students prevailed, and the level of income of the families represented in some cases. Belf Becker discovered that the Board prevailed in 52 percent of cases but the students prevailed in 41 percent. Yet, in the 15 percent of cases from 2009-2019, the Board prevailed in 63 percent of cases, with the student only winning 17 percent of cases. The increase in the Board prevailing and the student losing in cases studied from 2009-2019 was astounding, which therefore prompted the question of why this change occurred since the Belf Becker study. Thus, this essay argues that the Board has overwhelmingly prevailed in more cases in the past ten years due to changes in federal laws regarding the Individual with Disabilities with Education Act, as well as whether the case was a private placement. It additionally argues that whether the case dealt with a specific aspect of IDEA, such as the Least Restrictive Environment, or the Free and Appropriate Public Education principle, did not matter when concerning who prevailed in a case. Some factors, such as the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch and the percentage of students with a disability in the district present interesting statistics, but do not guarantee a winning case.   

It is imperative to note that most Connecticut hearing decisions between 2009-2019 deal with disputes over the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA was renewed in 1990, and was previously known as the 1975 Education for All Handicapped Children Act. There are six aspects of IDEA that outline rights for people with disabilities. Two of these six principles appear often in hearing decisions. One is the Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). FAPE ensures that the education the child in question receives is correct for the child and follows their Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which specifies certain goals the child should achieve within their educational setting. FAPE often comes into question during issues of outplacement, and cases involving FAPE examine whether or not the public education system the child is in is providing appropriate services or if they should be placed in a different environment better suited to meet their needs. Additionally, Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) ensures that a child with a disability is put in an environment that is best suited for them. They should be as integrated as possible, and it is important to note that this principle is constantly evolving; meaning that what the least restrictive environment for a child was one day may not be the same as the next (Sections of the IDEA Statute). These aspects of IDEA occurred quite frequently in hearing decisions, with parents often not agreeing with the board over provisions related to the aforementioned principles of IDEA.

The cases studied between 2009-2019, similarly with the cases Belf Becker studied from 1998-2003, all concern autism. Autism is a developmental disability that now affects 1 in 59 children worldwide (CDC 2018). During the time Belf Becker conducted her study, specifically in the year 2000, 1 in 150 children were affected by autism. It has been deemed as the fastest growing serious developmental disability in the world, and is quickly growing.

Figure 1: Data taken from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Students diagnosed with autism are, by law, eligible to receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

IDEA updates since the Belf Becker study are importantto understand in order to track changes overtime. For instance, one Supreme Court case in particular has clarified the Free and Appropriate Public Education principle of IDEA. One is the Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District case in 2017, which also concerned a student with autism. In this case, the Supreme Court was able to clarify what it means for a student with a disability to receive an “appropriate” education. Mitchell Yell  states that the Supreme Court determined that “the Court rejected the parent’s higher standard, which was that the IDEA required schools to provide an educational program aimed to provide educational opportunities equal to those provided nondisabledstudents to meet the IDEA’s FAPE standard. Nonetheless, the Court clearly embraced an educational benefit standard higher than the de minimis standard” (Yell 12). Therefore, the court found a middle ground in this case that raised the de minimis standard, and concluded that as long as the student is receiving some educational benefit, then the education is appropriate.

Since this aforementioned case raised the de minimis standard for school districts, which ensured that students in a special education setting would receive educational benefit, my personal theory was that this ruling would result in greater victories for families of children with autism since the case emphasized the importance of educational benefit. However, the hearing decisions studied from 2009-2019 still overwhelmingly sided with the Board. This is possibly because even though some Connecticut hearing decisions discovered that the Board in question was not providing an appropriate education for the student, many ruled that the the education the Board provided was appropriate. Of all the hearing decisions examined, 16 of the 24 dealt with the FAPE principle. In 14 of those cases, the Board prevailed. Possible reasoning behind this statistic is the fact that even though the Supreme Court raised the de minimis standard, all the Board must do is ensure the student in question is receiving at least some educational benefit. As long as the student is receiving some educational benefit, then they are not entitled to more services from the Board. They are also not likely to receive tuition reimbursements if the student is enrolled in a private institution since the parents were not pleased with the Board’s educational program. As long as the Board’s plan involves some educational benefit, by law, they are not required to provide anything more.

One factor that is interesting to examine when looking at recent hearing decisions is the percentage of students eligible for free and reduced lunch in a district. As previously mentioned, students only prevailed in approximately 17 percent of cases, meaning that the student only won in four out of the 24 cases studied. Yet, what was intriguing about this statistic was the fact that in two of these cases, the student won in districts that had a couple of the highest percentages of students eligible for free and reduced lunch in the district; 55.60 percent and 58.00 percent respectively. This statistic was intriguing since it showed how socioeconomic status can play a role in hearing decisions, however, it may not always guarantee a win from eitherparty. Similarly, Belf Becker examined socioeconomic status, although she studied median household income of families. In her work, she discovered that in districts with a median household income that was less than $43,000, the student was able to win 38 percent of the time. When the median household income was over $60,000, the student won 53 percent of the time. Belf Becker then writes: “Therefore, it can be concluded that access to representation based on income levels the playing field but does not guarantee a winning case (Belf Becker 17).” Even though Belf Becker studied median household income and this essay examines the percentage of free and reduced lunch in the district, the results are still very similar, which shows that socioeconomic status has not created a huge change in hearing decisions since the Belf Becker study.

Another intriguing statistic this essay studies is the percentage of students that have a disability in certain districts. In the previously mentioned district that had 55.60 percent of students eligible for free or reduced lunch, it also had the highest percentage of students with a disability of the 24 hearing decisions studied, which was 22.90 percent. The student prevailed in this case. Even though this was an interesting statistic, percentage of students with a disability in the district still does not guarantee a winning case. A student prevailed in another case that had one of the lowest percentages of students with a disability in the district, which was 11.30 percent. Therefore, even though percentage of students with a disability in a district could possibly help a certain side prevail, it does not guarantee a winning case.

In her study, Belf Becker examined whether a case dealt with a private placement. She discovered that with cases of private placement, the Board prevailed 45 percent of the time, the student prevailed in 45 percent of cases, and both sides prevailed 10 percent of the time (Belf Becker 13). Although, in this study, 11 of the 24 hearing decisions examined were private placement cases, with the Board prevailing in seven of those 11 cases, equaling 64 percent. Students prevailed in two of these private placements, totaling 18 percent of private placement cases. In one of these cases, both parties prevailed, which constitutes nine percent of cases, and one case was dismissed, which also constitutes nine percent of the 11 private placement cases. Therefore, during Belf Becker’s study, the percentage of families prevailing and the percentage of the Board prevailing was exactly the same. However, in the hearing decisions studied from 2009-2019, the Board overwhelmingly prevailed in cases involving private placement. This shift since Belf Becker’s study can be attributed to the Endrew F v. Douglas County School District Supreme Court case. Again, this case clarified that school districts needed to ensure that the student was receiving some educational benefit, and the court determined a middle ground between the de minimis and de maximis standards. Thus, the hearing decisions in Connecticut from 2009-2019 may not have been as lenient to reimburse a student’s outplacement tuition or deem the Board’seducation plan as inappropriate since if the Board is providing a plan that allows the student to receive some educational benefit, then  private placements are not as likely to be approved or paid for by the district.

One final factor that this study examines that the Belf Becker study does not is the principle of IDEA that applies to each hearing decision. Of all 24 cases this study covers, 16 are disputes over the Free and Appropriate Education principle, two concerning the Least Restrictive Environment, and six that concern whether the student in question received an appropriate disability evaluation from the board. While it is intriguing to examine the nature of each hearing decision studied, when determining a prevailing party, the type of case did not matter. For example, out of the four cases in which students prevailed, two cases were about FAPE and two concerned appropriate evaluations. However, the Board was able to prevail in cases involving FAPE and appropriate evaluations as well. Therefore, there is no pattern between the nature of a hearing decision and the party that prevailed.

In conclusion, the Board has overwhelmingly prevailed in hearing decisions since the Belf Becker study. This is an overall trend, but it is especially prevalent in cases concerning private placements. This disparity can be largely attributed to Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, since it concluded that students only need to receive an educational benefit between the de minimis and de maximis standards. Percentages of students eligible for free and reduced lunch and students with disabilities in a district provide some patterns, but do not guarantee a winning case, which is similar to Belf Becker’s examination of socioeconomic status. The principle of the Individuals with Disabilities Act that the case dealt with provided no pattern to constitute a winning party because there was no principle that stood out when examining which party prevailed. Therefore, there has been a significant shift in regards to the Board winning more cases than the student, yet, it is mostly attributed to federal law as opposed to other previously mentioned factors.         


Belf-Becker, Kate. “Who Prevails in Special Education and Why?” “Educational Studies Senior Research Project, Trinity College Digital Repository Apr. 2004,

“Special Education Hearing Decisions.” Connecticut Department of Education, Accessed 8 Apr. 2019.

Yell, Mitchell. The Law and Special Education. 5th ed.

CDC. “Data and Statistics on Autism Spectrum Disorder| CDC.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5 Apr. 2019,

Yell, Mitchell L.,and David F. Bateman. “Free Appropriate Public Education and Endrew F. v. Douglas County School System (2017): Implications for Personnel Preparation.” Teacher Education and Special Education, vol. 42, no. 1, Feb. 2019, pp. 6–17. SAGE Journals, doi:10.1177/0888406417754239

“IDEA News and Updates.” Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, Accessed 3 May 2019.

Backpack Full of… Deprivation and Discrimination?

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While the film is entitled “Backpack Full of Cash” it proves to be an ironic term to describe the deprivation that many students, especially in public institutions, experience when enveloped in a city with a rampant number of charter schools.

One of the most important scenes in the film begins at 26:54 in Backpack Full of Cash. A young student enrolled in a Philadelphia public school explained how she needs art and music- “I need to play my violin like peanut butter needs jelly. I need an art like a tree needs leaves” ( Mondale, Backpack Full of Cash 27:02). This scene is key because the film’s audience isable to witness how important music and art programs are for students through a speech by a student herself. It also displays the negative effects of privatizing education because it removes funding for paramount programs from public schools. The filmmakers shot this scene in an intriguing manner. They zoomed in on the young woman speaking. However, they maintain the individuals behind her in the scene. One woman with sunglasses is smiling as the student speaks, and another woman next to her is smiling as well while holding a bolded letter sign that says “FULL FUNDING FOR OUR SCHOOLS.” Therefore, by including the smiling women behind the student, the filmmakers are making the argument that people are enthused, and fully support the movement against lack of funding for public schools. By hearing the student speak, people are able to understand not only how important extra curricular programs are for a well rounded education, but how they are a necessity.



Mondale, Backpack Full of Cash 27:02



There is one hole in the documentary, however. The film mentioned briefly the discrimination against students with disabilities, saying that while they could not legally deny them admission, families would often be told-  “You would be better off in a district school” (Mondale, Backpack Full of Cash 20:20). However, the hope occurs with the fact that the audience does not hear any stories from the perspective of students with disabilities. While the stories are represented through other voices, the film is lacking first hand accounts from students with disabilities. This is an aspect of the film I particularly paid attention to since my brother is on the Autism Spectrum. I am an advocate for the representations of voices from all backgrounds, and while I appreciated hearing from concerned faculty and administrators regarding the discrimination against students with disabilities, I would have enjoyed hearing the story of an actual student.


Mondale, S. (Director/Producer), & Aronow, V. (Producer). (2016). Backpack full of cash. [DVD]. United States: Stone Lantern Films and Turnstone Productions.

Bill 7110- Providing a Safe Haven or Exclusionary Culture?

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The Education Committee’s public hearing on Friday, February 22nd, addressed a variety of bills Dianna Wentzell, the commissioner of the Education Committee, began the hearing by outlining certain stipulations regarding each bill. This included Senate Bill 813 which required the Department of Education to conduct “a study of issues related to early college and dual enrollment programs.” Wentzell said that the department “does not have the capacity to carry out these types of studies” and would need more funding to do so. She additionally commented on Senate Bill 814 which aimed “to require each local and regional board of education to conduct a test of the water supply for any school building or facility constructed before July 1, 1986, for the presence of lead.” Wentzell stated that testing the water supply should “not be the responsibility” of the Department of Education.

However, one of the most contentious bills seemed to be bill 7110, which aims “to require boards of education to revise their safe school climate plans to include provisions relating to disruptive or injurious incidents that occur in classrooms, to develop and implement a state-wide school climate survey, and to require the Department of Education to provide assistance to school districts relating to school climate.” Representative Bolinsky shared his comments on the bill, explaining that “Teachers have been knocking on my doors for a couple years for legislation to provide a safe climate for them.” He then poses a question “There is an awful lot of special education parents, families, and advocates out there concerned about the possibly of isolation separation, and social and emotional damage that occurs… How do you ensure there are protections in there so that we do not single out those on a special education program who may not always have control over their behavior?” Bolinsky concluded his statement by asking how we assure parents that this bill is not targeted towards their child or students with disabilities.

Wentzell then responded, articulating that she previously testified against a previous bill that she felt targeted students with special needs. She added that she was able to discuss issues in the previous bill with other individuals, saying that- “…we brought everyone together to push through.” I do think we have addressed most issues to make sure students with special needs are attended to appropriately.” One solution Wentzell proposed was administering a state wide school climate survey. In theory, this survey would serve as a check to make certain that schools were not perpetuating a culture where, as Wentzell explained “…parents start engaging in appropriate conversations about other children. However, Wentzell states that “The department does not have the financial resources to do so at this time.” Even though Wentzell mentions this setback for the Department of Education, she finishes her statement by emphasizing that “Groups are together to ensure that their (students with special needs) rights are protected.”

While bill 7110 proposes a safer school climate for students and teachers; questions still remain. Is there language in this bill that ensures that students with special needs are not targeted? How will the Department of Education study the longterm effects of this bill if there is no allowance in the budget for a state wide school climate survey?