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Court To Decide on Private Placement of Disabled Children

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court last week agreed to decide a special-education case that will help determine the extent of school districts' responsibility to pay for private school placements of children with disabilities.

The case from Florence County, S.C., presents the question of whether the district must reimburse parents who, after a disagreement with school officials over their daughter's special-education plan in a public school, placed her in a private institution that was not certified to meet state educational standards.

The case reflects a trend in which a growing number of parents of special-education students are seeking to make districts pay for private school placements after disagreements over providing special-education services in the public schools.

The lower-court rulings in Florence County School District v. Carter (Case No. 91-1523) are an example of "courts giving parents a veto power over the placement of their child,'' said a friend-of-the-court brief filed by the National School Boards Association, which urged the High Court to review the case.

The case involves the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which sets forth the procedures districts must follow to guarantee a "free, appropriate public education'' for all children with disabilities.

In a 1985 ruling, in Burlington School Committee v. Massachusetts, the High Court held that parents of children with disabilities who believe the education offered by the public schools is inappropriate may "unilaterally'' place the children in a private institution and be reimbursed if the courts later determine that the district failed to comply with the federal law.

The question in the South Carolina case is whether such reimbursement is required when the parents choose an institution that is not approved by the state to meet the standards demanded by the I.D.E.A.

Parents Awarded $36,000

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled unanimously in 1991 that the I.D.E.A. requires only that a private school meet state educational standards when a school district or the state places a special-education student there.

"The act itself simply imposes no requirement that the private school be approved by the state in parent-placement reimbursement cases,'' the Fourth Circuit panel said.

The case involves the education of Shannon Carter, who is now in her early 20's. After diagnosing Ms. Carter with a learning disability while she was in middle school in the mid-1980's, the Florence County district developed an individualized education plan for her in 1985 that failed to satisfy her parents.

The Carters then placed their daughter in the Trident Academy, a private, residential special-education school that had never sought approval from the state department of education. However, court papers say the state has made its own private placements of special-education students at the academy.

The Carters sued the Florence County district for reimbursement of tuition and other costs at the private school. A federal judge awarded the parents about $36,000. The appeals-court panel affirmed the award.

High Court 'Barometer'

The district appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court, which last year asked the Justice Department to comment on the case. After months of review, the solicitor general's office filed a brief in January that counseled the Court against granting review of the case.

The brief noted, however, that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit had ruled against reimbursement in a similar case. Thus, because of the apparent conflict between the circuits, the High Court might decide to review the issue, the solicitor general said.

School-law experts say the Florence County case could serve as a barometer on where the Justices are headed on special-education litigation.

While other segments of education law have seen a constant or declining level of litigation, special-education suits continue to rise at a rapid rate and represent a major financial burden to districts, said Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University.

"Some people believe we are on the edge of a backlash, both politically and in the courts, regarding students with disabilities,'' he said.

The South Carolina case, Mr. Zirkel said, raises a number of issues, both broad and narrow, about the cost to taxpayers of residential special-education placements, about the need for state standards for such institutions, and about whether some parents are manipulating the special-education process to place their children in private institutions at public expense.

The case will be heard in the High Court's next term, which begins in October.

Case Turned Down

In a separate case involving the I.D.E.A., the High Court last week declined to review the Education Department's authority to interpret the law's application to students with disabilities who break school rules.

The case centers on a 1989 interpretation of the I.D.E.A. by Robert R. Davila, then the assistant secretary for the office of special education and rehabilitative services. In response to an inquiry from Ohio's state director of special education, Mr. Davila wrote that the I.D.E.A. requires a school district to continue to provide educational services to any disabled student who is suspended or expelled for conduct unrelated to the disability.

For example, a deaf student caught selling drugs on school grounds might be expelled for the offense, but the district still would have to provide the youth a "free appropriate public education.'' In contrast, the district could expel and terminate educational services for a nondisabled student who committed the same offense.

Mr. Davila's interpretation upset many local school officials. The Wayne Township, Ind., district challenged the department's informal interpretation in federal court, arguing that it was really a "legislative rule'' that required public notice and comment under the federal Administrative Procedures Act.

A federal district judge agreed. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit reversed the judge last year, ruling that Mr. Davila had the authority to issue the interpretation without going through the notice-and-comment procedures. The unanimous three-judge panel did not address the underlying issue of educating disabled students who break school rules.

The school district appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court in Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township v. Davila (No. 92-929).

A number of education groups, including the National School Boards Association, the National Association of Secondary School Principals, and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, filed briefs supporting the district on both the procedural question and the more fundamental issue of whether districts can end services to disabled students who commit serious violations.

The N.S.B.A. wrote in its friend-of-the-court brief, for example, that the Education Department, "in its zeal to protect children with disabilities, has instead adopted a policy that teaches such children that they are exempt from the rules of society and the consequences of violating those rules.''

The Justices voted 8 to 1 to deny review of the case, with Associate Justice Byron R. White voting to grant review.

11th Amendment Immunity

In other action last week, the High Court:

  • Let stand a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit that California school districts, under the 11th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, are immune from federal lawsuits.

The appeals court had ruled that, because of the state's extensive control over school finances, districts are state agencies that have the same immunity from federal suits enjoyed by the rest of the state government. (See Education Week, May 20, 1992.)

The plaintiff in a civil-rights suit that was dismissed based on the immunity defense appealed to the High Court in the case, Belanger v. Madera Unified School District (No. 92-1136).

  • Declined to review lower-court rulings that denied attempts to reopen the school-desegregation case in Talladega County, Ala. A federal judge granted a motion to dismiss the case in 1985, and later denied motions to reopen the case and restore remedial orders. The appeal was Lee v. Talladega County Board of Education (No. 92-825).
  • Agreed to decide whether the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which reversed several High Court rulings and restored several legal remedies for job-discrimination cases, applies retroactively to the thousands of cases pending when it became law.

The Bush Administration and several federal district and appellate courts had taken the position that the law applied only prospectively from its enactment date, Nov. 21, 1991. But one federal appellate court and several district courts applied it to pending cases of race and sex discrimination.

The High Court agreed to consolidate two cases--Landgraf v. USI Film Products (No. 92-757) and Rivers v. Roadway Express Inc. (No. 92-938)--to review the issue in its next term.

  • Heard arguments in an insurance-industry antitrust case that arose out of the liability-insurance crisis that hit municipalities and school districts during the 1980's.

The Court's ruling in the consolidated cases of Hartford Fire Insurance Company v. California and Merret Underwriting Agency v. California (Nos. 91-1111 and 91-1128) could have a major impact on the availability and expense of liability coverage for cities and school districts, experts say.

In short, the High Court must decide whether the case brought against the industry in 1988 by nine state attorneys general can go to trial. (See Education Week, March 30, 1988.) A ruling is expected by July.

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