U.S. Supreme Court hears MCPS lawsuit

Oct. 6, 2005, midnight | By Adam Yalowitz | 16 years ago

Schaffer lawsuit to determine how special education is administered in Montgomery County

The U.S. Supreme Court was scheduled to hear oral arguments yesterday in "Schaffer v. Weast," a dispute between MCPS and a family advocating for a student's special education rights.

The case questions whether parents or the school system bears the burden of proof in establishing that an Individual Education Program (IEP) is adequate. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), school systems are required to create IEPs to ensure that students with disabilities receive sufficient resources from schools.

Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer were not satisfied with the IEP that MCPS developed for their son, Brian, in 1998. They placed him in a private school, the McLean School of Maryland, and filed to receive reimbursement from MCPS for the private school tuition.

The Schaffers paid for private testing that showed that Brian Schaffer should be in classes with six or seven students, said Jocelyn Schaffer. They said MCPS failed to provide an appropriate public education mandated by the IDEA. Under MCPS's proposed IEP, Brian Schaffer would have been in classes with over 20 students and a trained special educator, according to the Schaffers. They believe the school system has the responsibility to prove that an IEP is adequate.

MCPS maintained that special education litigation should follow legal precedent, where the plaintiff bears the burden of proof. This is part of the "traditional rules of the court," according to Brian Edwards, communications director for MCPS.

Plaintiffs have the burden of proof in most legal cases, but there are exceptions, said Miguel Méndez, a professor at Stanford University Law School. "The general rule is that the plaintiff bears the proof," said Méndez. "The courts can change this. When defendants have more evidence, sometimes courts put burden of proof on them."

Making the plan

In Montgomery County, IEPs are developed in conjunction with parents, said Edwards, who believes that MCPS provides excellent special education services. "MCPS has extremely dedicated special education teachers and staff," said Edwards. "We are known for our excellent special education programs."

Some parents of special-education students disagree with Edwards's analysis. Bob Astrove, a parent of two MCPS special-education students and a longtime education activist, said MCPS should have to prove that IEPs are sufficient. "They're the ones proposing the plans; they're the ones who implement the services. The school system has all the experts; they control all of the research," said Astrove. "It's not a level playing field."

According to Astrove, MCPS uses litigation as a way to avoid improving special education services. "[MCPS] would rather litigate than educate," he said.

Diana Lautenberger, the mother of a special-education student, agrees that MCPS uses legal power to avoid enriching IEPs. Lautenberger is unsatisfied with how MCPS has administered special education programs for her son. "[MCPS] didn't want him; that was very clear. They made it very difficult for him. They didn't give him the support he needed to be successful. He began to deteriorate," said Lautenberger. "When I said, `You're not meeting my son's needs,' they said, `Prove it.'"

Most of the parents whom Board of Education member Sharon Cox has met have been satisfied with their children's special education programs. "I have spoken with many parents who say that their experiences with the school system have been terrific," said Cox. "MCPS makes every effort to provide the services that a child needs."

Blair's 250 special education students are among the 17,000 of MCPS's 140,000 students who need such programs.

Meetings to design IEPs involve school psychologists, teachers, speech pathologists, counselors, parents and the student being evaluated, said Lisa Davisson, Blair's special education resource teacher. She added that a Supreme Court ruling in favor of Schaffer would make it harder to help design IEPs and administer special education programs because of extra legal precautions.

When school officials decide MCPS cannot provide quality services to a special-education student, the county pays for the student to attend a private school. Currently, 650 MCPS special-education students are in private schools, costing the county $32 million per year, according to Edwards. This expenditure constitutes over 10 percent of MCPS's $310.7 million special education budget. At Blair, Davisson annually refers about one student for placement at another public school or in a private school.

In Schaffer's case, a decision was not reached in an IEP meeting to place Schaffer in a private school. Schaffer's parents decided on their own to enroll their son in a private school, and they sued MCPS for reimbursement, said Jocelyn Schaffer.

In 1998, a judge ruled in favor of MCPS, according to Wrightslaw, a special education research group. Since then, a series of appeals from both the Schaffers and MCPS led the case through the U.S. Court of Appeals, which decided in favor of MCPS, to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Adam Yalowitz. Adam Yalowitz is just silly. You may find him asking you how much sleep you got last night and then smirking when you say "five hours," because he's always slept less, no matter what. When he does sleep, he dreams of Barack Obama, Tastee Diner … More »

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