Heartbroken, Coleman pulled her child out of the public school system in 2007 and enrolled him in a private school that caters to special education students.
Her son is now in high school, thriving socially and academically, Coleman said, but “why did we have to sue to make him a success story?”
With tuition at her son’s private school costing more $60,000 annually, she and the Montgomery County school system battled for two years over where he should be educated and who should foot the bill until an administrative law judge finally ordered the district to pay for private school.
Coleman is now one of hundreds of Maryland parents pushing a bill they say would make it easier for families to contest special education services schools provide for their children.
The party that files a special education legal complaint in Maryland — most often the parents of the child — has the responsibility of convincing a judge that a school system’s individual education program for a disabled child is or is not appropriate. But Senate Bill 691 and House Bill 1286 would change that. The legislation proposes requiring Maryland public school systems to defend the appropriateness of learning plans they create for students regardless of who files the complaint.
Placing the burden of proof on schools would encourage districts to work cooperatively with parents before cases reach a financially and emotionally draining legal fight, supporters say.
School districts have an advantage in special education disputes because they write the learning plans and have experts and attorneys to fight parents in administrative hearings, said Karen Smith, a special education committee member for the Montgomery County Council of Parent-Teacher Associations, which backs the bill.
“The parents have to jump through all the hoops,” said Smith, who is also an education lawyer.
Federal law says students with disabilities are entitled to a “free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment” funded by public school systems, whether that cost is for 30 minutes of speech therapy a week or tuition for private school placement. When the two sides can’t agree on the services and mediation fails, parents can file a special education due-process complaint.
Maryland education officials say the bill placing the burden of proof on the school system is unnecessary because complaints are often resolved locally or through mediation before they reach a judge. Of the 247 special education due-process complaints in fiscal 2012, 24 couldn’t be settled in mediation or resolution sessions. Fifteen of those cases received a final decision from an administrative judge while the rest were dismissed, resolved or are still in the process.