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Court Rules Parents of Disabled Children Have Burden of Proof

By Linda Greenhouse


The Supreme Court ruled in a closely watched education case on Monday that parents who disagree with a school system’s special-education plan for their child have the legal burden of proving that the plan will not provide the “appropriate” education to which federal law entitles all children with disabilities.

The 6-2 decision, in a case from the Washington suburb of Montgomery County, Md., affirmed a ruling last year by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not take part in the case, which was argued on Oct. 5, because his former law firm represented the school district.

The decision, which will likely affect hundreds of cases each year, was a disappointment for parents and disability rights groups that argued that making them prove that special-education programs were inadequate gave school districts little incentive to address their complaints.

“It’s a setback,” said Michael Eig, the Maryland lawyer who represented the family in the case before the Supreme Court. “We’re disappointed. The problem here is that, unfortunately, it unbalances an already unbalanced playing field against the parents.”

The National School Boards Association praised the decision, saying it would allow school districts to “spend the money and resources on educating children, not legal proceedings.”

The Bush administration had originally entered the case on behalf of the parents, arguing that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a school district had the burden of proving the adequacy of a student’s “individualized education program” rather than the other way around.

But when the case reached the Supreme Court, the administration switched sides, arguing that the court should apply the “traditional rule” in civil cases that “the party initiating and seeking relief” bears the burden of proof. This was the argument that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor accepted in her majority opinion.

There are nearly 7 million students in the country who receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which in several earlier forms dates from 1970. To fulfill the law’s requirement to provide a “free appropriate public education,” school districts work with parents to develop an individual program for each student with a disability.