WASHINGTON – Lawyers for the Montgomery County Public Schools and a former student’s parents will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court today in a case that could determine who is responsible for proving whether a school’s plan for educating a student with a learning disability is appropriate.
Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer began their struggle with the Montgomery County Public Schools in 1998, when, with experts’ help, they concluded their son, Brian, would not be able to succeed academically under the plan advocated by county educators.
“Brian, his whole life, has tried to hide his learning disability from everyone around him,” Jocelyn Schaffer said, “and now here he is the poster child for disability rights.”
Eventually, the schools offered a plan that satisfied the Schaffers and in 2003 Brian graduated from Walter Johnson High School, a county school. Now Brian is in his third year of college, but his parents are pursuing their case on behalf of all parents fighting to ensure their children receive appropriate special education services, Schaffer said.
“So many parents can’t afford to enter this legal process,” said Schaffer. “So many parents can’t afford an alternate program outside of public schools.”
Schaffer said she and her husband were able to enroll their son in a private school while they worked with Montgomery County to develop a plan allowing Brian to succeed in public school.
Brian struggled academically as a result of a severe auditory processing disorder and other milder learning disabilities.
Auditory processing disorder affects a person’s ability to understand what is being said when there is a lot of background noise, such as in a large classroom, said Jim Jerger a researcher at the University of Texas at Dallas’s Auditory Processing Disorder Laboratory. Although the person has normal hearing ability, the words just don’t make sense.
When Brian was in seventh grade, his parents realized that Green Acres, the Rockville private school he attended since pre-kindergarten, couldn’t properly accommodate a child with their son’s disabilities. They began planning to transfer him to a school that could.
Brian’s mother contacted their local school, Herbert Hoover Middle School, which is part of the Montgomery County Public School System, in November 1997 asking that her son be evaluated to determine his eligibility for special education services at the school.
At that point, the Schaffers and the school system entered the process laid out in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997. Under this federal law, schools must develop an individualized education program, commonly known as an IEP, for each learning-disabled student.
An IEP must include information on the child’s disability and how it affects learning. It also must detail a plan to educate the child that includes details of special education services and goals for the school year.
Although the school is responsible for developing the IEP, the law says that it “is supposed to be a complete team process and parents are a part of the team,” said Patti Ralabate, a special education policy analyst with the National Education Association.
“Sometimes the teaming process doesn’t work because some members of the team don’t know how to be collaborative,” Ralabate said, “that could be members of the school or parents.”
Schaffer said they tried to work with the school system, but were frustrated by the process.
“We brought so much information to help inform them, yet it was like they totally ignored us.”
Montgomery County proposed putting Brian in a classroom of between 20 and 30 students where he would receive help from a special education teacher along with a small group of students in the back of the class.
His parents thought the plan would be worse for Brian than the situation at Green Acres, Schaffer said. There he had struggled in a classroom with 13 students, but had done better with groups half that size, she said.
They decided to send him to another private school that would accommodate his educational needs while they challenged the IEP offered by the Montgomery County Public Schools.
When the administrative hearing failed to produce an agreement, the Schaffers took the case to court. The lower courts disagreed about who should have to prove the effectiveness of Brian’s IEP.
The Supreme Court will make a final decision that could shape the way disputes over IEPs are handled across the country. The court will rule by July.
If the court determines that public schools are responsible for demonstrating that each IEP they develop is appropriate, “that would erode confidence and trust in the special education system,” said Gregory Garre the attorney for the Montgomery County Public Schools.
In addition, considerable time and money could be involved if many more families decided to contest IEPs offered by public schools, Garre said.
Although administrative hearings are not the same as court trials, they still involve significant costs. The average hearing costs $20,000, Garre said.
Those on the side of the schools also argue that placing responsibility on the schools goes against basic legal principles.
“If you bring a complaint,” said Brian Edwards, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Public Schools, “you should have to prove the complaint.”