In the United States, public schools are required to pay for a variety of special education services in order to ensure that all students receive a “free and appropriate public education.” Among other things, these services may include the help of a paraprofessional, accessible transportation, occupational therapy, or even private school tuition (in cases where a public school is not equipped to provide sufficient support to a particular student) (1).
If parents believe their child is not being given the services they require, they can file a complaint. Often these are resolved outside of court, but if the parents and school system are unable to come to an agreement, they may proceed to trial. Federal law mandates that parents be given “due process” and receive an impartial hearing.
However, many parents in Maryland feel that they are facing an unfair fight. When cases proceed to trial, they lose more than 85 percent of the time. Moreover, these court cases are emotionally and financially draining – parents can rack up tens of thousands of dollars in costs. It’s a huge risk for a small chance of victory (2).
The Friedman family’s legal struggle
Sarah Friedman, a Maryland parent, told the Baltimore Sun, “My daughter was let down first by the school system and then by the judicial system.”
Friedman’s daughter has severe dyslexia, and in grade three was reading at a the level of a new first grader. After four years of trying to get her public school to provide her with a better education, Friedman pulled her daughter out and sent her to a private school that specializes in learning disabilities. Friedman’s daughter began to catch up, and was even able to read a chapter book. She told her mother that she never wanted to return to her public school, calling it “the death school.”
Friedman and her husband pursued a case, trying to get Montgomery County to pay for private school tuition, as the public elementary school had failed to meet their daughter’s needs. They lost (2).
“Not every case is a winner”
A senior official in the Maryland school system told the Baltimore Sun part of the reason parents so infrequently win is that many cases are resolved prior to trial. A representative for the judges who hear these cases stated that they assess them impartially.
The Baltimore Sun also spoke with Maureen van Stone, director of Kennedy Krieger Institute’s Project HEAL, which advocates for children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. Van Stone acknowledged that “not every case is a winner,” but stressed that the very small proportion of cases in which parents are successful indicates that something about the system is broken.
Many parents do not even have the financial resources to pursue a case, especially knowing just how unlikely it is that they will win. School systems often have higher budgets for litigation. In some cases, they spend even more to dispute parents than they would if they just granted the parents’ requests (in one case, about 10 times the amount of the service requested) (2).
Proposed changes to special education litigation in Maryland
Maryland advocates and lawmakers have suggested a variety of changes that could even the playing field a bit. For example, the burden of proof could be shifted from the parents to the school. That is, rather than the parents having to demonstrate that their child’s education is inadequate, the school system would have to demonstrate that they are providing as much support as they reasonably can. This type of legislation has passed in other states, such as New York and New Jersey. However, it has failed repeatedly in Maryland (2).
It is important to note that Maryland parents have not always had such low odds of winning special education disputes. Prior to 1993, Maryland special education cases were heard by a three-person panel of people trained in disability rights laws. Parents won in about 50 percent of cases. Then, the Maryland schools began pressuring lawmakers to change the way these cases were litigated. They convinced the legislature to eliminate the three-person panels and have these cases heard by one administrative judge (3). (Some have argued that these judges do not have sufficient training in special education law ). After this change, parents very rarely won cases.
Wayne Steedman, a special education attorney in Maryland, told Fox News that, “The law didn’t change. Nothing changed but who was adjudicating the hearing, who was running the hearing.” Steedman believes the three-person panels should be reinstated.
Fox News also interviewed Steedman’s client, Sarah Davis. She agreed that something needs to change, because “our kids deserve better” (3).
About ABC Law Centers
ABC Law Centers was established to focus exclusively on birth injury cases. A “birth injury” is any type of harm to a baby that occurs just before, during, or after birth. This includes issues such as oxygen deprivation, infection, and trauma. While some children with birth injuries make a complete recovery, others develop lifelong conditions such as cerebral palsy and intellectual disabilities.
If a birth injury/subsequent disability could have been prevented with proper care, then it constitutes medical malpractice. Settlements from birth injury cases can cover the costs of lifelong treatment, care, educational resources, and more.
If you believe you may have a birth injury case for your child, please contact us today to learn more. We are happy to talk to you free of any obligation or charge. In fact, clients pay nothing throughout the entire legal process unless we win.
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- Guide to Special Education: Key Vocab, Laws, and Placement. (n.d.). Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.abclawcenters.com/resources/special-education/
- Richman, T. (2019, May 04). ‘Why would we even try?’ Parents of disabled students almost never win in fights against Maryland districts. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://www.baltimoresun.com/news/investigations/bs-md-due-process-hearings-20190502-story.html
- Papst, C. (n.d.). Maryland Parents Face Losing Battle in Struggle Against Schools. Retrieved May 23, 2019, from https://foxbaltimore.com/news/project-baltimore/maryland-parents-face-losing-battle-in-struggle-against-schools