Supreme Court Ruling May Make It Harder for Children to Get Extra Help at School

Ruling finds that unless parents can prove that their disabled child isn't getting an adequate education, the law assumes their public school is doing a good job.

Thursday December 1st - 12:00am

A ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court may make it harder for children with AD/HD and learning disabilities to get special services from their local school districts. On November 14, the Court ruled in Schaffer vs. Weast that, unless parents can prove that their disabled child isn't getting an adequate education, the law assumes their public school is doing a good job.

The ruling settled a question that Congress did not answer in 1975, when it enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA: When parents take legal action to force a school district to do more for their child, who has the burden of proof that the child needs more help - the school district or the parents?

"This is going to make it harder for parents with limited funds to prove that the school district's plan is inappropriate," said George Zelma, senior attorney at The Children's Advisory Group in New York City and an expert in special education law. "This ruling is a real setback for the country, because it means that fewer kids will have their needs met."

The case on which the Court ruled involved Brian Schaffer, a learning-disabled student living in Columbia County, Maryland. When officials at the private school Brian attended suggested that he be placed in a school that could better accommodate his needs, the local school district offered him a place in either of two middle schools. Brian's parents were dissatisfied with the arrangement. They enrolled him in another private school, and then failed in their effort to be reimbursed for the cost of tuition.

The problem with putting the burden of proof on parents is that school systems hold all the cards, said Ruth Hughes, Ph.D., deputy CEO for public policy and community services for Children and Adults with ADD (CHADD). "Any family is at a disadvantage when disagreeing with a school system about a student's special education plan," Hughes said. "Add other burdens, such as limited financial resources or lack of knowledge, and children with disabilities will receive less appropriate services."

Some states have laws that clearly put the burden of proof on their school systems. The Court did not rule on those laws, although Hughes said that she expected the ruling to encourage states to change their laws. She said families of children with disabilities should oppose changes to state and local policies based on the Court's decision.

Zelma said the ruling makes it more important than ever for parents to get private evaluations of their child instead of counting on the school district's evaluations. A private evaluation typically costs $2,000 to $3,000, he said.

The ruling also suggests that good record-keeping by parents is more important than ever, according to Clare B. Jones, Ph.D., an educational consultant who specializes in AD/HD. "It requires a parent to be more diligent, to keep better notes, to ask for documentation, and to stay on top of the school's documentation."

Parents who want to learn more about the ruling and its implications can contact the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, and the special education advocacy Web sites wrightslaw.com and reedmartin.com.

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