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Court Impact on Education of Handicapped Termed 'Enormous'

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The involvement of the courts in resolving disputes over the education of handicapped children has had an "enormous" effect on local policymaking and, at the same time, has imposed little or no burden on the civil-justice system, according to a new study.

The study was conducted and funded by the Rand Corporation's Institute for Civil Justice, which investigates policies that have an impact on the civil-justice system and the effects of court decisions on the nation's social and economic systems.

The enactment of P.L. 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, has forced school administrators to pay more attention to the legal rights of students and to take greater care in designing special-education services, according to a report on the study, "Educational Policymaking Through the Civil Justice System."

As a result, the report contends, the number of lawsuits heard in the courts has been relatively small, since most disputes are now being settled through routine administrative channels established by school districts.

But the study found that parents, advocates for the handicapped, and school officials have paid close attention to those few court decisions that have provided "a framework for bargaining between school officials and parents of handicapped children."

In releasing the report last week, Paul T. Hill and Doren L. Madey of Rand said P.L. 94-142 reflects the trend in recently enacted federal laws to assure individuals the legal right to public services. And that assurance, they said, can be found in its purest form in the handicapped legislation, which was "the only significant source of legal action on the local level."

The researchers' findings are based on interviews conducted between November 1980 and August 1981 with school administrators from eight districts that have a higher than average volume of lawsuits under P.L. 94-142.

According to the report, less than 10 percent of the nation's school districts have been a party to a P.L. 94-142 case and only "a few dozen" school districts--especially those located in or near large metropolitan areas--have been in court more than five times for such a case.

"Most school districts have handled at least one administrative due-process complaint, and the largest metropolitan districts handle 10 or more each year," the report notes.

"Only the smallest rural districts have completely avoided formal disputes" because, according to the report, they serve only a fraction of the nation's handicapped students.

Administrative Units

The report contends that in the past six years most school systems have established administrative units specializing in the federal law protecting the handicapped "because school superintendents and board members dread having their actions reviewed in court."

"The school-system administrators expect [the unit's staff] to settle disputes with parents quickly and to keep the school system from being embarrassed by legally or educationally unsound decisions," according to the report.

This aversion to the legal process, the report contends, provides the parents of handicapped children with a potential source of leverage. "Though parents cannot always get everything they think their children need, their access to the legal system predisposes school officials to take their requests seriously," the report claims.

Although school officials do not give in to the demands of all parents for expensive services, the Rand researchers found that school officials readily agree to provide those services that have been firmly established by court interpretation.

For that reason, school officials and parents keep track of legal decisions in courts that are geographically remote even though they do not have local jurisdiction, the researchers note.

"The main role of the courts is to provide parents and school officials with incentives to negotiate fairly with each other ...," their report contends.

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