Special Education

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Boston University does not have to allow students with learning disabilities to substitute other classes for its two-year foreign-language requirement, a federal judge has ruled.

The decision late last month ordered the private university to pay $1.2 million in lawyers' fees for the 10 students who brought the suit in 1996. The lawyers had asked for more than twice that amount.

Sid Wolinsky, an attorney with Disability Rights Advocates in Oakland, Calif., which represented the students, said they likely would not appeal the case. "On balance, we are pleased with it."

The case was closely watched by disability-rights advocates and college officials as a test of how far higher education institutions must go to accommodate students with learning disabilities.

The university's president, Jon Westling, called the ruling a victory for all universities. "By preserving the right of universities to set and maintain educational standards, the court allows us to guarantee the credentials of our graduates, for their benefit and the benefit of future employers," he said in a statement.

In a partial decision in the case last August, U.S. District Court Judge Patti B. Saris ruled that the university had violated federal disability law by requiring learning-disabled students to undergo certain evaluations of their disabilities. She awarded six of the 10 students a total of nearly $30,000.

But as part of that ruling, Boston University was allowed to demand that learning-disabled students produce an evaluation no less than 3 years old, and to require classes from which learning-disabled students had asked to be exempted.

The U.S. Department of Education says states' special education hearing officers may call witnesses against their will.

In a June 11, 1997, policy letter sent recently to chief state school officers, special education directors, members of Congress, and state disability services providers, the office of special education programs overruled a 1995 decision by the Maryland Department of Education that its hearing officers were not allowed to compel nonagency employees to testify.

The federal department told Maryland officials that hearing officers, who are typically used by states to settle disputes between parents and school districts, may force witnesses to testify in due-process hearings.

Thomas Hehir, director of the office of special education programs, said in an interview last week that the department's position did not represent new policy.

--JOETTA L. SACK [email protected]

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Page 7

Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Special Education

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