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Supreme Court Rules On Special Education Case

RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

A Supreme Court decision on special education raises complicated questions for public schools and parents. The high court yesterday ruled that an Oregon family can sue their local school district for the cost of sending their son to a private boarding school. Some public schools fear the decision will unleash a wave of lawsuits. NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The student in this case remains anonymous, known only as T.A. in court documents. But his story is a familiar and painful one to parents and educators. As a high school student he began having attention problems. The Forest Grove School District near Portland, Oregon evaluated him but decided he did not qualify for special education help. The family's attorney, Mary Broadhurst, says this is exactly when the school district should've jumped in.

MARY BROADHURST: If they had offered minimal services, such as daily check-ins, helping him break down long-term assignments into shorter pieces, it is highly unlikely that this student would've ever required residential treatment in the first place.

ABRAMSON: By the time T.A. was a junior, his parents decided they'd had enough. They pulled him out of public school and sent him to a private residential facility that charged over $5,000 a month. Attorney Gary Feinerman represented the Forest Grove Schools. He says by acting unilaterally like that the family forfeited the right to reimbursement.

GARY FEINERMAN: The parents did not give Forest Grove School District notice that they were going to do so and did not give the school district an opportunity to evaluate the student for eligibility under the special education law.

ABRAMSON: Francisco Negron of the National School Boards Association says that's what he's afraid of.

FRANCISCO NEGRON: Really what this is about is about permission for parents to take their students, their children, and place them in private settings without coming to the school district. And that's really outside the bounds of what Congress intended.

ABRAMSON: But attorneys for special education students say that fear ignores just how difficult it is to bring these suits. Mary Broadhurst, T.A.'s attorney, says just look at how many years this family has had to spend in court.

BROADHURST: It can be a long process. As you're aware, this case started in 2003. Here we are June 2009 and it's not over yet.

ABRAMSON: Not over because the family has only won the right to sue and must go back to court. And while the Supreme Court decision said these suits can go ahead, Gary Feinerman, the school district's attorney, says the ruling still allows courts to consider whether parents have collaborated with districts.

FEINERMAN: And to review the notice that was or was not given to the public school in order to determine whether reimbursement, while perhaps theoretically available, should nonetheless be denied.

ABRAMSON: Many analysts say this case will largely affect cases where parents and schools have come to loggerheads or just aren't talking. In most situations that never happens. Special education attorney Peter Wright says this case encourages schools to keep working with parents and avoid ending up in court.

PETER WRIGHTS: Most school districts will have a cooperative approach with parents. Well, we may not think your child is as severe as you do, but we are willing to provide services. So let's see what we can come up with.

ABRAMSON: Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Larry Abramson is NPR's National Security Correspondent. He covers the Pentagon, as well as issues relating to the thousands of vets returning home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.