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Ruling Boosts Role of Special-Ed. Heating Officers

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The opinions of hearing officers who rule in special-education disputes between schools and parents should be given great weight, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The Dec. 19 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit applies only to five states--Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Legal experts said it would make it harder in those states to reverse the decisions of the hearing officers who initially rule on special-education disputes.

Usually appointed by a state department of education or a court, hearing officers represent the first layer of appeals for parents challenging their children's special-education placements.

The qualifications of those hearing officers vary widely among states, however, according to a report by the National Council on Disability.

Special-education lawyers said the ruling should lead to a greater emphasis on the need for well-trained hearing officers, while also spurring school districts to prepare adequately for the initial hearing in a case.

"Some of our school systems have traditionally tried to handle the initial hearing with fewer resources," said Grady Carlson, the lawyer for the school district in the case, Doyle v. Arlington County School Board.

The case involved an Arlington, Va., girl with a severe learning disability whose parents want the local district to pay for her placement in a special private school.

After hearing testimony from both sides in the case, a hearing officer ruled in favor of the parents.

The district then appealed to a higher- level hearing officer, who overruled the decision without gathering new evidence. While agreeing with the facts in the case, the second hearing officer questioned the impartiality of one of the private- school teachers who had testified earlier.

'Far From Accepted Norm'

A federal district court, taking the case on appeal from the parents, accepted the findings of the second-level hearing officer without gathering additional evidence and ruled in favor of the district.

In remanding the case to the district court, Circuit Judge H. Emory Widener said second-level hearing officers and judges who hear special-education disputes must justify reversing a lower decision with compelling evidence that the earlier testimony was incorrect. In this case, the judge wrote, the district court's decision to discredit the teacher's testimony without hearing from the teacher was "far from the accepted norm of a fact-finding process designed to discover the truth."

Lawyers said the ruling contrasts with other circuit-court rulings on the issue, opening up the possibility the U.S. Supreme Court may be asked to resolve the matter at some point.

In another special-education ruling last month, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit said districts must consider a "full range" of ways to accommodate disabled students in the regular classroom.

The Dec. 26 ruling came in a Georgia case involving an 11-year-old girl with Downs syndrome whose parents want her to be educated in the regular classroom. A three- judge panel of the court said Rome City school officials had failed to consider more than three options for the girl: the regular classroom with no special services, regular classes with some speech therapy, or special-education classes.

The judges said officials could have considered more speech therapy or restructuring the class, among other options.

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