Justices rule on special ed cases


In a Maryland case watched by school officials across the nation, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday that parents of special education students who argue that their children are not receiving an adequate public school education have the legal burden to prove their claim.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the 6-2 majority, said that "absent some reason to believe that Congress intended otherwise, we will conclude that the burden of persuasion lies where it usually falls, upon the party seeking relief."

The case involved the Montgomery County school system and its handling of a middle school student eight years ago. Superintendent Jerry D. Weast said that had the ruling gone the other way, school districts everywhere could have been subject to expensive legal wrangles to prove the legitimacy of educational plans drafted for special education students.

"You would have affirmed the notion that every education plan is invalid unless the school system proves otherwise," Weast said. "This makes this case loom large for all school systems."

The county was joined by a variety of national education groups that usually don't take the same side, including a national teachers union and the National School Boards Association.

Advocates for special education students said the court's opinion is disappointing for parents who are not satisfied with the services their children are offered.

"We believe that it is one more difficulty that these families of disabled kids" will face, said Michael J. Eig, a Chevy Chase attorney who represented the family that filed the lawsuit.

Martin and Jocelyn Schaffer, whose son, Brian, has learning disabilities and speech impairments, challenged his placement in a county middle school, saying he needed smaller classes and added special education services. The Schaffers sent their son to private school while they continued to plead their case.

When the county offered more services, their son went to Walter Johnson High, a public school, graduating several years ago. He is now at a small college.

But the case continued because the parents asked the school system to reimburse them for his private school tuition.

An administrative judge ruled that the evidence on each side was equal and that the decision should be based on who had the burden of proof in the case.

Under federal law, every child with a disability must be evaluated by a team of teachers, psychologists and other school system staff. Then, in a meeting with parents, a plan for the child's education - called an individual education plan, or IEP - is written.

The plan might call for the child to receive specific services or extra help in the classroom. There are thousands of such plans for children in Maryland.

When parents disagree with an IEP, they can ask for a hearing. Yesterday's opinion addressed who has the burden of proof.

"It is a very unequal process," said Leslie Leid Margolis, an attorney with the Maryland Disabilities Law Center. "Any parent who has been through it will tell you it is brutal. If any of the justices had gone through the process, they would understand that."

Justices Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter, John Paul Stevens and Clarence Thomas joined the majority opinion in Schaffer v. Weast. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not take part, because his former law firm represented the school district.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven G. Breyer wrote separate, dissenting opinions, arguing that because the law requires school systems to provide a "free appropriate public education" for disabled students, they should be obliged to prove that their programs meet that requirement.


Wire services contributed to this article.

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