Supreme Court: Parents Must Prove IEP Inadequacies
By Dave Reynolds, Inclusion Daily Express
November 18, 2005
WASHINGTON, DC--Parents, not school districts, have the burden of proof when they claim that individualized education programs (IEPs) are not adequate for their children who have disabilities, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday.
The court ruled 6-to-2 in the case, saying that parents who challenge a school's special education program must prove in an administrative hearing that the program is not sufficient. Likewise, if a school challenges a parent, the burden of proof must be with the school.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the decision, while Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer wrote separate dissents. Chief Justice John G. Roberts did not weigh in on the case because his former law firm represented the school district in the case.
The suit, Schaffer v. Weast, was filed on behalf of Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer, whose son, Brian, has been diagnosed with learning disabilities. In 1997, the Maryland couple tried to place Brian in the Montgomery County school system, but did not feel the special education options the district presented were right for their son because the classes at the middle schools would have been too large, and he would not have received the intensive services they felt he needed. The Schaffers instead placed the boy at a private school and turned to the county to reimburse their tuition costs.
An administrative law judge ruled for the school system, but a district court later reversed that decision. The case then made its way to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which again ruled for the school and put the burden of proof on the parents. Monday's Supreme Court decision affirms the Appeals Court's ruling.
The Schaffers' attorney argued that the schools already have an unfair advantage in disagreements with parents because they usually have more money and better access to information and expert witnesses.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act does not specify which party must carry the burden of proof in these disputes.
In her dissent, Justice Bader Ginsburg wrote that, since school districts are responsible for offering an individualized education program (IEP) to each child that has a disability, "the proponent of the IEP [the school], it seems to me, is properly called upon to demonstrate its adequacy".
Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent that Congress likely intended states to come up with their own rules over who is responsible for proving their case, rather than establishing a federal law that applies to all states and jurisdictions.
In response to the ruling, Arlene Mayerson, of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, told the New York Times: "Obviously it's bad news to parents. But how bad the news is we'll have to wait and see."
"Parents Carry Burden of Proof in School Cases, Court Rules" (New York Times)
"Special Education Ruling's Effects Unclear" (New York Times)
"Editorial: Disability Law, Moving Backward " (New York Times)
Opinion: "Special-education failures run deep" (Baltimore Sun)
"Access for disabled remains elusive" (USA Today)
Schaffer v. Weast (U.S. Supreme Court)