The Supreme Court agreed yesterday to hear the case of a Montgomery County couple who contend that school officials, if challenged, must prove they are meeting their legal obligations to special education students.
The justices will try to decide whether lower courts should place the burden of proof on schools or the plaintiff -- presumably the parents -- when a party sues under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The law requires that public schools grant every disabled child a "free appropriate special education" tailored to the child's specific needs.
The case, which has taken a tortuous, seven-year path through the educational and legal systems, could have a major impact on millions of parents and their children with special needs. It involves Brian Schaffer, who in 1997 was a seventh-grader with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was attending a private school that offered no special education programs.
When Jocelyn Schaffer, Brian's mother, sought to enroll him at Herbert Hoover Middle School, the county offered a specially designed curriculum for Brian called an Individual Education Program. It called for 15.3 hours of special education and 45 minutes of speech therapy each week. After the parents expressed concern about that school's fairly large classes, according to court filings, the system offered the same individualized program at Robert Frost Middle School, where classes were smaller.
The parents rejected both offers as inadequate and instead enrolled Brian in the McLean School of Maryland, a private school in Potomac. They subsequently requested a due process hearing, available under the disabilities act, during which they sought reimbursement for school tuition.
An administrative law judge ruled that the Schaffers had to prove that the school system's plan for their son was lacking. The parents then filed suit in U.S. District Court, which ruled that the burden of proof rested with the schools. The case was returned to the administrative law judge, who ordered the school system to reimburse the parents for part of their son's private school tuition.
The Montgomery County school system appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, which ruled that the burden rests with whatever party is filing the suit, effectively ruling against the Schaffers, who appealed to the Supreme Court.
The case is being closely watched by school systems and special education advocates. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act offers no clear standard for how such cases should be resolved. Various appellate courts have come down on different sides of the question.
"We regard this as an important civil rights case," said William H. Hurd, the Schaffers's attorney. "We believe the implications are very large."
Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County schools, said the case "demonstrates the overwhelming litigious nature that has evolved under special education in which school systems have been presumed at fault until proven otherwise."
Weast said most school districts settle similar cases to avoid litigation. Montgomery County, which has about 15,000 students enrolled in Individual Education Programs, is contesting the issue, he said, because "educational services should be decided in an appropriate way based on the educational needs of the student, not the whim of a lawyer."
Last year, 26 Montgomery cases were sent to an administrative law judge for mediation, according to the State Department of Education.
The National School Boards Association, which represents the nation's 15,000 school systems, backs Montgomery's' position that the burden should not rest with the schools if a parent brings a suit.
"The bottom line is that there are plenty of protections in the law, and you should follow the general rule that the challenging party has the burden of proof," said Naomi Gittins a staff attorney for the association.
Attorneys for the Schaffer family argue that it is the school system's responsibility to prove that it is adhering to federal law.
"This is a case where the school district has an affirmative obligation to develop a plan for the child," Hurd said. "It ought to be willing to step up to the plate and explain why it believes it has met its obligation."
As the case was wending its way to the Supreme Court, the U.S. Department of Justice under the Clinton administration filed a brief supporting the Schaffers. Hurd said he was hopeful that the Bush administration would maintain that position at the high court. Justice Department officials did not return phone calls yesterday seeking comment.