U.S. Supreme Court Hears MCPS Special Education Case

October 5, 2005
Burden of Proof Case Affects Treatment of Special Education Staff

The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Wednesday, October 5, in an important case that will determine whether the professional expertise of special education teachers, psychologists, speech and language pathologists, counselors, principals, and others who help children with disabilities will be automatically presumed inadequate whenever challenged by a parent.

At issue is a seemingly obscure legal question that affects how the decisions of special education staff will be treated when parents bring a complaint to an administrative hearing.

In traditional rules of law, the responsibility for proving the merits of a complaint falls on the person making the complaint. For example, if a parent makes a complaint, the allegation is presented first and then the school system responds. This is the customary “burden of proof” expectation that reflects the requirements of federal rules, including civil rights law and the Americans with Disabilities Act, among other legal provisions at both the federal and state levels.

The Supreme Court is being asked to change this procedure for special education proceedings and require school system staff to defend themselves first, even before the parents demonstrate the merits of their complaint.

“Common sense suggests that if people make a complaint, they should be prepared to explain and defend it,” said Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools. “Otherwise, our special education teachers and other professionals will become targets for attorneys and spend more time in the courtroom than the classroom.”

Support from Legal and Educational Experts

The challenge against special education staff has drawn widespread support for the school system from legal and educational experts around the country.

The case, known as Schaffer v. Weast, arose from a disagreement that began seven years ago involving a private school student who was to enroll in seventh grade in Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) and receive special education services. At that time, the student's parents challenged the Individualized Education Program (IEP) offered by school system staff and sought an administrative hearing. Several disputes ensued.

Eventually the case reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond. That court decided that since the parents challenged the IEP, they should prove the merits of their complaint. Instead, the parents appealed to the Supreme Court.

The threat to special education staff is among the main reasons why various national groups have joined together in support of the school system. These groups include the National Education Association, the Council of Great City Schools, the National School Boards Association, and the American Association of School Administrators. Also defending the school system are several state associations of school administrators, state school board associations, and several state attorneys general.

The case also has brought in the federal government in defense of the school system. The Department of Justice, the Department of Education, and the Solicitor General are arguing that Congress never intended that traditional procedures involving burden of proof should be changed when it authorized provisions for special education students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Instead, Congress included a variety of parental rights and safeguards in IDEA to make sure that parents and their children are protected. For example, IDEA gives parents the right to have an independent evaluation of their child at the school district's expense, to participate in all meetings related to their child's education, and to examine and copy all of a child's records, as well as numerous other procedural safeguards.

An Emphasis on Collaboration

“We know that there will be disagreements from time to time, and parents have every right to make sure their children are receiving the appropriate services,” said Dr. Weast. “But, our special education staff should not have to work under legal conditions that automatically presume that their judgments are invalid.”

If the Supreme Court rules against the school system, the result is anticipated to be more litigation and rising legal costs. Such a decision would encourage parents to seek legal challenges as a primary option, instead of working with school staff in a collaborative manner.

MCPS special education staff work hard in close partnership with parents to develop successful Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for special education students. The IEP process is extensive, involving literally hundreds of hours in identifying special needs and potential interventions, collecting and analyzing data, and evaluating possible alternatives with parents.

MCPS currently serves more than 17,000 special education students with an annual budget of $311 million. Over the last five years, the special education funding has grown by 55 percent -- up from $201 million -- including more than $32 million a year in tuition for students in private school placements.

The student in the current case, Brian Schaffer, eventually enrolled in the school system and graduated from Walter Johnson High School in 2003. He is now in college.

More information in on the MCPS Web site at the link below.

Information updated October 14, 2005.

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