Thursday, November 17, 2005


Lost amidst the shuffle of Alito and Libby and Woodward was a SCOTUS case near and dear to my heart, Schaffer v. Weast. It's a case about special education.

Stop that. I hear you tuning out already. Hey. I mean it. You care about children living in squalor and African-American men being marooned on Death Row. You ought to care about this, too. Special ed is about the kids among us who are disabled, who need help, and whose parents generally have to fight like hell to get that help. If you care about the disenfranchised, you should care about these kids, too.

And they need you to care more than ever, now, after the disenfranchising results of this case. Briefly (pun intended), the deal is this. Federal law requires that public schools provide a "free appropriate public education". The vehicle for providing this is a collaborative document called an Individual Education Plan (IEP). Most of the hearing and court cases surrounding special education law have to do with whether or not the plan is "appropriate" for a particular child's needs and disabilities, providing accommodations to meet those needs and disabilities.

For example, a blind kid (non-visually enhanced? non-sighted?) should not be taught from a blackboard. If you can't see, you need oral instruction. Seems simple, right? Not so much, unfortunately. Parents and school districts often fight over what appropriate accommodations are. Special education is expensive and some school districts don't want to pay for it.

You may notice I am biased in this area. I have an autistic son. Asperger's Syndrome. Our local school district spent thousands of dollars on him during his sojourns in the public schools. We were lucky, for the most part. For the most part, our district provided him with the accommodations he needed to succeed in school. And only tried to screw us a few times.

Why? We were lucky--and I used to be a lawyer. Which was more good luck for us. Because I understood the law in this area. I understood the language, I knew how to use it when talking to school officials. I knew what to say and what not to say. I knew how to get results.

Parents of children in special education have to be advocates for their kids. And, coming back to the recent SCOTUS decision, that's been made clear now more than ever, to our children's detriment. If a parent objects to the plan and accommodations put forth by a school district, that parent now carries the burden to prove that the plan and accommodations will not provide an appropriate education.

Big whoop, you might say. Isn't that the way it usually is in court? It is a damn big whoop, my friend. The special ed system is incredibly confusing. Lots of jargon and shorthand and initials and paperwork. Not intimidating to me, the once upon a time lawyer. But intimidating to many, many other parents. And poorly educated parents? Poverty-level parents who can't afford a lawyer or a consultant to hold their hand through the maze? They're supposed to be able to muster proof that these plans aren't appropriate?

Some states have felt so strongly that this burden of proof is unfair that, prior to this court case they enacted state laws requiring schools to take on the burden. But SCOTUS didn't share their feelings. Apparently, because usually the party questioning a decision has the burden of proof means that they should always have the burden of proof.

This ruling places such an additional burden on parents of challenged kids. Geez, don't any of these Justices have kids or grandkids or great grandkids with special needs? Don't they know how hard it is to understand the literature about meeting those needs? Can't they imagine how tough it is to parent these kids, let alone have to fight a school district to get them to educate them better, let alone bear the burden of proof showing that the school district is NOT educating them well enough?

The reason I want you to care is I want you to be ready to support state laws shifting the burden of proof to the school districts. Is it expensive to educate special ed kids? You bet. Isn't it better , more humane, to spend money on them to help them become productive citizens rather than simply warehouse them? For those who are less disabled, kids who succeed in school are less likely to become criminals. You can help all of these kids by supporting state laws requiring schools to prove they're doing right by our kids. Then, maybe, just maybe, they will.

Until tomorrow,


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