U.S. Supreme Court Upholds School Districts in Special Education Case On Nov. 14, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that parents have the burden of proof when they challenge an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) in due process hearings. The case, Schaffer v. Weast, is one of the most important special education cases to reach the nation’s high court in recent ... School Matters
Free
School Matters  |   December 01, 2005
U.S. Supreme Court Upholds School Districts in Special Education Case
Author Notes
  • Susan Boswell, an assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at sboswell@asha.org.
    Susan Boswell, an assistant managing editor of The ASHA Leader, can be reached at sboswell@asha.org.×
Article Information
School-Based Settings / School Matters
School Matters   |   December 01, 2005
U.S. Supreme Court Upholds School Districts in Special Education Case
The ASHA Leader, December 2005, Vol. 10, 2-10. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.10172005.2
The ASHA Leader, December 2005, Vol. 10, 2-10. doi:10.1044/leader.SCM.10172005.2
On Nov. 14, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-2 that parents have the burden of proof when they challenge an Individualized Educational Program (IEP) in due process hearings. The case, Schaffer v. Weast, is one of the most important special education cases to reach the nation’s high court in recent years and was hailed as a victory for school districts.
Justice Sandra Day O’Connor delivered the written decision for the majority, noting that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is silent on the allocation of the “burden of persuasion.” The justices used the term “burden of persuasion” because “burden of proof” relates to two different questions-who loses if the evidence is closely balanced (persuasion), and who must produce evidence at different points in a court proceeding, which does not bear on the Schaffer case.
In the decision, O’Connor wrote, “Absent some reason to believe that Congress intended otherwise, the Court will conclude that the burden of persuasion lies where it usually falls, upon the party seeking relief.”
The Supreme Court decision ends a seven-year battle that began in 1997 when officials from a private elementary school informed Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer that their son Brian needed a school that could better accommodate his learning and speech-language disabilities.
Schaffer requested a special education evaluation from Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS), which generated an IEP that included 15.3 hours of special education in inclusion classes and 45 minutes of speech-language intervention each week in either of two local middle schools.
The parents objected to the IEP, saying that it proposed a less intense program with a higher teacher-student ratio than the original private school where Brian was failing. Brian was subsequently enrolled in another private school, and the Schaffers initiated a due process hearing challenging the IEP and seeking compensation for the cost of Brian’s subsequent private education.
The justices rejected the argument that the burden should be placed on MCPS, stating that the “petitioners in effect ask this Court to assume that every IEP is invalid until the school district demonstrates that it is not. The Act does not support this conclusion.”
The ruling recognizes that parents and guardians play a significant role throughout the IEP process and that recent IDEA reauthorizations have strengthened procedural safeguards. Parents “are not left without a realistic chance to access evidence or without an expert to match the government,” O’Connor noted.
In addition, the decision also questioned whether scarce special education funds should be spent on litigation. “Congress repeatedly amended the Act in order to reduce its administrative and litigation-related costs,” O’Connor wrote, noting that litigating a due process complaint can cost the school district as much as $12,000 per hearing.
Nationwide, school districts spent a total of $146.5 million during the 1999–2000 school year on due process, mediation, and litigation activities for all special education students in K-12. In recent years, the number of hearing requests continues to surge, with 6,763 due process hearings, 4,266 mediation cases, and 301 litigation cases in 1998–1999.
The decision in Schaffer v. Weast could stem the tide in the number of court cases and parents suing school districts, said ASHA President Dolores E. Battle. “This could save school districts millions of dollars that are currently being spent on legal fees.”
The implications of this decision will vary around the country because burden of persuasion is decided at the state level. Following this decision, the states that currently have burden of proof resting on the school district may change their policies to put the burden of proof on the party filing the complaint. “Members should check with state education departments to learn where the burden of proof is placed according to their state policy,” Battle said.
But the decision should not change school-based service delivery, Battle said. “Because districts have latitude in the quality and quantity of services provided to students, members should be vigilant that schools provide appropriate levels of service.”
“The decision also reinforces the importance of accountability in accurately qualifying a student for service,” noted DeAnne Owre, the 2006 ASHA vice president for governmental and social policies. “Use of appropriate assessment tools, thoughtful decision making, good record keeping/documentation, and ongoing communication with staff and parents/guardians appear paramount to making a proper decision in regard to a student’s placement and services.”
“If the IEP team, school administration, and the parents/guardians could get on the same page earlier in the process, it would help to prevent the need for litigation by parents/guardians and school districts, regardless of who has burden of proof,” Owre added.
The decision was issued less than six weeks after the Oct. 5 oral arguments. Observers attributed the quick action to O’Connor, who is known for speedy turnaround on opinions she writes. Visit the Supreme Court of the United States Web site for a copy of the opinion.
0 Comments
Submit a Comment
Submit A Comment
Name
Comment Title
Comment


This feature is available to Subscribers Only
Sign In or Create an Account ×
FROM THIS ISSUE
December 2005
Volume 10, Issue 17