Traditional law applies to special education cases
The Supreme Court ruled that parents have the legal burden of proving that schools' plans for their disabled children are inadequate.
CHILDREN requiring special needs in Hawaii's school system should not be further impaired by a U.S. Supreme Court decision that legal issues be decided under traditional standards
. Like others seeking relief in court, parents of special-needs schoolchildren will be required to prove their case and not be allowed to force the school district to prove its compliance with federal law.
In a 6-2 decision, the Supreme Court affirmed a ruling that applies the universal standard for the burden of proof to disputes over compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA. The ruling means that parents lodging a complaint must persuade the court that the school district's education program for their special-needs child is inadequate.
Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett has been criticized for filing a legal brief with the high court asking that states be allowed to determine which side should have the burden of persuasion. Hawaii is the only state that is also the school district, and Bennett's brief was consistent with both the law and Hawaii's interest.
IDEA does not say which side should have the burden of persuasion, and the high court, by default, concluded that it rests with the side seeking relief. That is the policy throughout the civil justice system on issues such as legal standing, preliminary injunctions, First Amendment, securities fraud, equal protection and the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Although the high court's decision affirmed an appeals court ruling arising from a Maryland case, it has the effect of overturning a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which includes Hawaii. The 9th Circuit and three other appellate courts had ruled that school districts are assumed to be in violation of IDEA unless they can prove otherwise.
Naomi Grossman, president of the Autism Society of Hawaii, argues that parents are "just not equipped" to battle in court against the Department of Education. That is precisely why Congress built into IDEA procedural safeguards, which include involving parents at all stages, granting independent evaluations, giving them access to information and paying for voluntary, independent mediation. Parents prevailing in contested cases may receive reasonable legal fees.
The Supreme Court's ruling will not be as earthshaking as opponents contend. The vast majority of cases are resolved decisively regardless of which side has the burden of persuasion. Those will proceed as usual in administrative hearings and in court.
In the court's majority opinion, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor noted that "IDEA is silent about whether marginal dollars should be allocated to litigation and administrative expenditures or to education services." A legal hearing costs taxpayers $8,000 to $12,000.
Hawaii taxpayers are well aware of how education dollars can be diverted to face legal challenges. The ruling should encourage some parents to opt for mediation instead of costly litigation, allowing school districts to spend their education dollars on schooling.