Supreme Court Rules On Special Education Case

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In a 6-to-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled Monday that school districts could be required to reimburse students who choose special education programs at private schools even if they did not try the public school's special education offerings first.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

A Supreme Court decision on special education raises complicated questions for public schools and parents. The high court yesterday ruled that an Oregon family can sue their local school district for the cost of sending their son to a private boarding school. Some public schools fear the decision will unleash a wave of lawsuits. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The student in this case remains anonymous, known only as T.A. in court documents. But his story is a familiar and painful one to parents and educators. As a high school student he began having attention problems. The Forest Grove School District near Portland, Oregon evaluated him but decided he did not qualify for special education help. The family's attorney, Mary Broadhurst, says this is exactly when the school district should've jumped in.

Ms. MARY BROADHURST (Attorney): If they had offered minimal services, such as daily check-ins, helping him break down long-term assignments into shorter pieces, it is highly unlikely that this student would've ever required residential treatment in the first place.

ABRAMSON: By the time T.A. was a junior, his parents decided they'd had enough. They pulled him out of public school and sent him to a private residential facility that charged over $5,000 a month. Attorney Gary Feinerman represented the Forest Grove Schools. He says by acting unilaterally like that the family forfeited the right to reimbursement.

Mr. GARY FEINERMAN (Attorney): The parents did not give Forest Grove School District notice that they were going to do so and did not give the school district an opportunity to evaluate the student for eligibility under the special education law.

ABRAMSON: But yesterday the Supreme Court said the suit can go ahead. In a 6-3 decision the court said parents who move students on their own can sue for private tuition payments. The question now is, will parents rush to place their kids in private schools and then ask public schools to pay?

Francisco Negron of the National School Boards Association says that's what he's afraid of.

Mr. FRANCISCO NEGRON (National School Boards Association): Really what this is about is about permission for parents to take their students, their children, and place them in private settings without coming to the school district. And that's really outside the bounds of what Congress intended.

ABRAMSON: But attorneys for special education students say that fear ignores just how difficult it is to bring these suits. Mary Broadhurst, T.A.'s attorney, says just look at how many years this family has had to spend in court.

Ms. BROADHURST: It can be a long process. As you're aware, this case started in 2003. Here we are June 2009 and it's not over yet.

ABRAMSON: Not over because the family has only won the right to sue and must go back to court. And while the Supreme Court decision said these suits can go ahead, Gary Feinerman, the school district's attorney, says the ruling still allows courts to consider whether parents have collaborated with districts.

MR. FEINERMAN: And to review the notice that was or was not given to the public school in order to determine whether reimbursement, while perhaps theoretically available, should nonetheless be denied.

ABRAMSON: Many analysts say this case will largely affect cases where parents and schools have come to loggerheads or just aren't talking. In most situations that never happens. Special education attorney Peter Wright says this case encourages schools to keep working with parents and avoid ending up in court.

Mr. PETER WRIGHTS (Attorney): Most school districts will have a cooperative approach with parents. Well, we may not think your child is as severe as you do, but we are willing to provide services. So let's see what we can come up with.

ABRAMSON: Whatever happened to the student, T.A.? His attorney says he's working and taking another of several stabs at going to college. He's doing okay, she says, but he's still struggling.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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Justices Rule For Parents Of Special Ed Student

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The Supreme Court on Monday made it easier for parents of special education students to get reimbursement for private school tuition. School administrators fear that the 6-3 ruling will lead to a jump in private school placements.

The student in the case is known simply as "T.A." The Forest Grove School District, outside of Portland, Ore., noticed that he was having problems in high school but suspected marijuana use was the cause and refused to give him special education services. Toward the end of his junior year, T.A.'s parents pulled him out of public school and sent him to a private residential academy.

The parents then sued the school district to recover the $65,000 they spent on private tuition. The school district argued that the parents stepped over the line and lost the ability to seek reimbursement when they transferred him without first giving public special education a try.

Attorney David Salmons, who represented T.A.'s family, says the history of the litigation shows that the district had not done its job. T.A.'s parents had raised concerns about their son before they pulled him out of school, and a school psychologist questioned whether he might have attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.

"The hearing officer concluded that any further notice to the school district would have served no purpose," Salmons says, "because the school district was applying the wrong legal standard and would have denied the child services in all circumstances."

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that schools have an affirmative obligation to "identify, locate and evaluate all children with disabilities." He said it would be wrong to reward the school district for refusing to find a child eligible for special services.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas joined the dissent, written by Justice David Souter, which said Congress envisioned private tuition payments only for students who already had been receiving special education services in public schools.

Lindsay Jones of the Council for Exceptional Children says the majority decision will hurt school systems because it removes the incentive for parents to collaborate with educators.

"Under that situation," she says, "parents don't have to even seek special education services or work with the district before they ask that the district pay for their private placement."

Jones' group, which represents special educators, wants Congress to rewrite the special education law and clarify the limits on when parents can ask for private school tuition.

But attorneys for families say the decision will not lead to a spike in private placements.

Salmons notes that the family has won only the right to argue for reimbursement.

"Keep in mind," he says," that the decision today does not guarantee the parents reimbursement for private school tuition. The parents have the burden of showing that there was a failure to provide a free appropriate public education, and they have the burden to show that their private placement was appropriate."

Private placements get a lot of publicity and are blamed for soaking up education dollars. But they make up only a small percentage of special education cases, and many are resolved with a school district's consent. Lawyers for special education students say they hope this decision will stop cases from going to court by encouraging districts to act quickly to identify students with learning problems.

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