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More Challenges to Spec.-Ed. Plans Feared in Wake of Ruling

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court last week let stand a ruling in a special-education case that school groups fear will result in more parents challenging the decisions of administrators over educational plans for children with disabilities.

The High Court declined to review lower-court rulings that upheld a heating officer's decision ordering an Illinois school district to place a student with a behavior disorder in a private school. The hearing officer said the parents' "hostility" to the district's proposed placement of their 15-year-old son in a public alternative school would doom his education plan "to failure."

While numerous disputes between parents and districts over individualized education plans for special education students are appealed as far as the Supreme Court, the Illinois case was unusual in that it drew the attention of the National School Boards Association, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, the Council for Exceptional Children, and the Council of Administrators of Special Education.

The groups filed a brief in support of Community Consolidated School District 21, located in suburban Chicago, saying that the rulings to date could sot a precedent that "gives parents the absolute right to dictate the educational program for their child."

Placement 'Poisoned'

The case involved a middle-school student who was diagnosed by school officials as having a behavior disorder and a learning disability, designations to which Iris parents objected. After continuing problems with what officials said was disruptive behavior by the boy, the district sought to place him at an alternative school for students with behavior problems.

The parents objected, and they followed appeals procedures sot forth in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. A hearing officer recommended that the district place the boy in a private school, because his proposed placement in the public school had been "poisoned" in his mind by his parents.

The district challenged the order in federal court, arguing that the hearing officer erred by considering the parents' hostility to the placement. A federal judge affirmed the officer.

In a 2-to-1 ruling last year, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the judge and the hearing officer, holding that the I.D.E.A. "does not limit the factors that can be considered in judging the likely impact of the [individualized education plan] on the child so long as they bear on the question of expected educational benefits."

A dissent by U.S. Circuit Judge Harlington Wood Jr. said the parents had "succeeded in dictating the educational result by their continued and extremely hostile attitude toward" the school district.

The brief filed by the school-boards association and other national groups contended that, under the Seventh Circuit ruling, "parents will now be encouraged to express their hostility in order to achieve their goals."

The brief also argued that the ruling ran counter to the High Court's 1982 decision in Board of Education v. Rowley, in which the Justices said that courts should defer to school officials as long as they follow procedures in federal law and develop individualized plans that are reasonably calculated to enable a disabled child to receive educational benefits.

The case rejected last week was Board of Education of Community School District 21 v. Illinois State Board of Education and Sheldon and Pauline Brozer (Case No. 91-849).

School-Accessibility Case

In another case, Schuldt v. Mankato Independent School District (No. 91-826), the High Court last week declined to review a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit that a Minnesota district does not have to modify a neighborhood school to make it accessible to a student with spina bifida.

Parents of the student sought to have the Mankato Independent School District make changes at the nearest neighborhood school to accommodate the girl, who is paralyzed from the neck down and requires a wheelchair.

The district assigned the girl to another school that was already wheelchair accessible. The appeals panel affirmed a district-court decision that the school district was providing the girl with a free, appropriate education in the least restrictive environment available.

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