WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court said Tuesday it will hear the appeal of a Montgomery County family that claimed it was wrongly forced to bear the burden of proof in a dispute over a disabled son’s special education plan.
The question of who bears the burden of proof in fights between parents and school districts over a child’s individual education plan has divided the 10 federal circuits that have weighed in on the matter.
Thirteen states, including Virginia and West Virginia, joined in a friend-of-the-court brief that urged the high court to take up the case and establish a consistent rule, without arguing what that rule should be.
The 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in July that the parents of Brian Schaffer have the burden of proving in an administrative hearing that the county’s education plan for their boy was inadequate.
William Hurd, an attorney for the Schaffers, said the family was “delighted” by the high court’s decision to take the case.
“It’s an important issue: it’s important to my clients, but more importantly, it’s important to all parents,” Hurd said.
“You’ve got 13 states out there are saying: give us a uniform rule, don’t let this be a patchwork,” Hurd said.
Zvi Greisman, attorney for the Montgomery County Public Schools, agreed that “it’s an important issue,” but he hoped that the Supreme Court upholds the 4th Circuit’s ruling in support of the county.
The case stems from a dispute under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which obligates states to develop an individual education plan for each disabled student. In case of a disagreement over those plans, the school district and the parents bring their cases before an administrative hearing.
Brian Schaffer suffered from learning disabilities, language impairment, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other health impairments in the fall of 1997, when his parents began the process of transferring him from the private Green Acres School in Rockville to the county school system. He remained at Green Acres for the 1997-1998 school year.
The county school system investigated Brian’s records, and drafted an individual education plan that laid out the special-education services and speech-language therapy that he would receive at Herbert Hoover Middle School. While that the plan was being drafted, however, the Schaffers applied to and enrolled Brian in the McLean School, a private school in Potomac.
When the school district presented its plan, the Schaffers found it unacceptable. In May 1998, they requested an administrative due process hearing where they sought reimbursement for the cost of tuition at McLean, as well as a more favorable education plan for Brian.
The administrative law judge who handled the hearing weighed expert testimony from both sides, and found the case boiled down to the claim of Brian’s “central auditory processing” problem. He further found that the assignment of burden of proof was critical to the outcome of the case, because the two sides were so closely matched.
The administrative judge assigned the burden of proof to the parents, and ultimately found that they had failed to prove their case.
The Schaffers appealed to federal district court, which sent the case back with directions to assign the burden of proof to the county. The second decision by the administrative law judge was followed by a series of appeals, culminating the in July decision by the circuit court.
That ruling noted the wide disagreement among circuits about the burden of proof in cases of parents challenging school districts. But the 4th Circuit judges said the Schaffer case, and cases like it, should follow established civil procedure, which dictates that the party initiating the action bears the burden of proof.
The issue is moot, as far as Brian is concerned: He graduated from high school while the case wound its way through the court system for more than six years.
“One of the troublesome aspects of these cases is how long they take,” Hurd said.
Tucker Martin, a spokesman for the Office of the Attorney General in Virginia, said his office was “pleased that they’re going to hear the case.” Virginia wrote the brief in which the other states joined.
“It’s a complex issue, it’s certainly an emotional issue,” Martin said, and Virginia’s position is that there needs to be national uniformity in the law.
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