High Court Focuses on Education of Disabled Students

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Supreme Court (search) justices pressed lawyers for the Montgomery County Schools and parents of a former student to clarify the role of states in enforcing a federal law requiring disabled children to receive a free, appropriate education.

New Chief Justice John Roberts (search) did not attend Wednesday's hearing on the case, which will decide who is responsible for proving whether a school's plan for educating a student with a learning disability is appropriate — schools or parents.

Lawyers on both sides stumbled over the justices' questions on how similar situations have been handled in other states. They had a variety of examples, but were unable to provide the justices with a picture of what typically happens when conflicts arise between parents and educators.

"Why should we allow states to have different rules when dealing with a federal statute?" Justice Sandra Day O'Connor asked Gregory Garre, the attorney for the Montgomery County School System.

The lack of clarity in the law suggests that Congress did not consider this sort of problem, Justice Stephen Breyer said, and without guidance from Congress it would make sense to leave the decision to the states.

The case dates back to 1998, when Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer were dissatisfied with the individualized education program (IEP) the school system proposed for their son, Brian, who has auditory processing disorder and other learning disabilities (search).

The law in question is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (search) Amendments of 1997, Congress's effort to strengthen protections for disabled students. It requires parents and educators to work together to develop an IEP for each disabled student and allows families to challenge a school's recommendations.

The law does not say who must bear the burden of showing that a proposed IEP does enough for a student. This is what the court will decide before July.

Schaffer family attorney William Hurd said the legal system should not be concerned if a school gives too much assistance to a student, because the primary goal of Congress in enacting the law was to see that children receive an appropriate education.

"If the hearing officer denies services the child needs, then the child suffers," Hurd said, but if the situation is reversed then the child gets a better education and no harm is done.

Justice Antonin Scalia scoffed at the idea that no harm is done by providing a child with more services than necessary, saying it's important to remember that those services cost money.

"The problem is this is not play-money; it's coming from somewhere," Scalia said.

Money has been at the heart of the Montgomery County School System's argument. If schools are made responsible for proving the effectiveness of every IEP more parents will sue, which would lead to extraordinary time and financial burdens for schools already operating with limited resources, Garre said.

In his concluding statement, Hurd said there is no reason to believe that putting the burden on parents will lead to fewer hearings. On the contrary, it would decrease schools' motivation to create the best IEPs possible for each student.

Capital News Service contributed to this report.