WASHINGTON – A Supreme Court ruling in a Maryland case Monday has mixed implications for those who want the best education for students with disabilities, an education expert said.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that parents must prove that a school’s special education plan, called an IEP, for their child is inadequate.
“The burden of proof in an administrative hearing challenging an IEP is properly placed upon the party seeking relief,” wrote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in a 6-2 majority decision.
The ruling is “positive and negative,” said George Giuliani, vice president of the National Association of Special Education Teachers.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Amendments of 1997, which was designed to ensure that students with disabilities receive an appropriate education, “relies heavily on the expertise of school districts to meet its goals,” O’Connor wrote for the court.
The court is saying that we have to we have to assume that teachers are right, Giuliani said. “I think that’s a good thing to hear from the court.”
Still, he said, “it places an unfair burden on parents. They may look at this and say it’s not worth the fight.”
That concern was echoed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in her written dissent.
And ultimately, that’s what led the parents of Brian Schaffer, a student in Montgomery County Public Schools, to take the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Talking to other parents in similar situations, mother Jocelyn Schaffer has said she found “case after case of people feeling that they just weren’t being heard.”
The case began in 1998 when Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer, with the help of experts, concluded their son, Brian, who struggled with a severe auditory processing disorder, would not be able to achieve academic success under an individualized education plan designed by the schools. Brian’s ability to understand what is being said when there is a lot of background noise, such as in a crowded classroom, was sharply diminished.
In his seventh-grade year, the Schaffers realized the private school they had been sending him to was unable to provide him with the services he needed, and they transferred him to a public school in Montgomery County.
The county put together an IEP, which must include information about the student’s disabilities, current abilities, goals for the school year and concrete plans to reach those goals.
The Schaffers were unhappy with Brian’s IEP because it required him to be placed in a larger, more crowded classroom than the one where he was already having problems.
They followed the procedures to challenge the school and in the meantime put Brian in another private school.
During their legal struggles, the schools eventually created an IEP that satisfied the Schaffers, so in 2003 Brian graduated from Walter Johnson High School. He now attends college in another state.
Schaffer said she and her husband were lucky to be able to send Brian to a private school and hire lawyers to pursue the case, but that other families might not be able to do the same.
Giuliani said that this is a likely problem with the court’s ruling.
“At some point parents are going to say: ‘Is this really worth the battle and can I afford to do it?'” he said. “It really puts them at a disadvantage.”
Montgomery County Schools were pleased with the decision, with Superintendent Jerry Weast calling it a “victory for special education teachers in Montgomery County . . . who work hard every day to provide the best possible education for students with disabilities.”