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Parents have burden of proof in school cases

WASHINGTON — 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."

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. Depending on the child's needs, the program can provide anything from a weekly session with a speech teacher to placement at taxpayer expense in a private residential program.

When parents and school officials cannot agree, the law provides for a "due process hearing" before an administrative law judge or other impartial decision-maker.

The case the Supreme Court decided, Schaffer v. Weast, No. 04-698, began in 1997, when Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer took their son, Brian, out of seventh grade in a private school and sought a placement for him in the Montgomery County system. Brian had been given diagnoses of several learning disabilities.

The tangled course of the case demonstrates the importance of the burden of proof.

In her majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said that "absent some reason to believe that Congress intended otherwise," the burden of proof should be "where it usually falls, upon the party seeking relief." On the infrequent occasions when the school district seeks a hearing, that means that the district would bear the burden.

In other action Monday, the Supreme Court:

Agreed to consider reinstating rules that keep newspapers and magazines out of the hands of disruptive Pennsylvania inmates. Court nominee Samuel Alito supported the rules in appeals court.

Turned back a challenge to Florida's lifetime ban on voting rights for convicted felons.

Dismissed a case that would have spelled out what police should do when suspects demand to see an attorney, but then talk anyway.

Said they would clarify when federal courts have jurisdiction in prisoner lawsuits, using the case of a California inmate punished for alleged inappropriate activity with volunteer Catholic priests.

Rejected a constitutional challenge to "In God We Trust" on the Davidson County government building in Lexington, N.C.