In Brown v. Board of Education, U.S. Supreme Court establishes principle that all children be guaranteed equal educational opportunity.
Congress first addresses the education of students with disabilities when it amends the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 to establish a grant program to assist states in the ‘initiation, expansion and improvement of programs and projects” for the education of students with disabilities.
Rampant discrimination against millions of children with disabilities continues to occur throughout United States schools. “A majority of handicapped children in the United States ‘were either totally excluded from schools or sitting idly in regular classrooms awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out,’” according to the petitioners.
Parents and civil rights groups began turning to the federal courts, seeking relief on constitutional grounds.
Nov. 19, 1975
Congress enacts the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, now known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The law ensures that Congress provides money to states to “ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment and independent living.”
The United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit rules in Tatro v. Texas that the party disputing an IEP bears the burden of proof. Over the next 21 years, 11 circuits rule on the burden of proof issue. Four circuits rule that parents carry the burden while seven circuits rule that school districts bear the burden, according to the petitioners brief in Schaffer v. Weast.
After placing Brian Schaffer on academic probation, Green Acres School concludes the seventh grader should attend a school that could more adequately accommodate his disabilities. Brian Schaffer had attended Green Acres, a private school in Rockville, from pre-kindergarten through seventh grade.
Brian’s parents turn to Montgomery County Public Schools to seek appropriate placement for the following school year. The school district agrees to provide Brian with some special education services, but rejects the conclusions of outside experts who had evaluated Brian, and the recommendations of Green Acres teachers who had worked with him.
Brian’s mother contacts special education teachers at Herbert Hoover Middle School, Brian’s “home” Montgomery County Public School, and asks for an evaluation of Brian’s eligibility to receive special education services for the following school year, according to the school system.
Brian’s parents applied to have Brian admitted to the McLean School of Maryland, according to the MCPS brief. Parents say they applied to McLean School as a safeguard.
Feb. 26, 1998
MCPS convenes initial IEP Team meeting and obtains permission from Schaffers to assess Brian’s eligibility for special education. Meeting attended by Brian’s parents, Hoover principal and assistant principal, MCPS special education teacher, MCPS psychologist, MCPS speech/language pathologist, the head of the middle school at Green Acres, and attorneys for MCPS and the Schaffers, according to the MCPS brief.
April 6, 1998
Team reconvenes. MCPS identifies Brian as a student with a speech-language disability and a mild learning disability, according to MCPS. The expert hired by Brian’s parents diagnosed Brian as having a more serious auditory processing disorder.
MCPS prepares an IEP that places Brian at Hoover Middle School. The Schaffers are concerned with the larger class sizes. MCPS then offered to implement the IEP at Robert Frost Middle School.
May 5, 1998
Brian’s parents send letter to MCPS stating that the proposed IEP would place Brian in classes that were too large and unstructured.
Brian’s parents request administrative due process hearing and reject the proposed Individualized Education Plan. As a safeguard, they enroll Brian in the McLean School, a private school in Potomac that offers small classes and accommodates students with learning disabilities, according to the Schaffer’s brief. Brian’s parents, who had two other children in Montgomery County Public Schools, requested reimbursement for the costs they incur in sending their son to McLean school.
After a three-day hearing, an administrative law judge in the Maryland Office of Administrative Hearings imposes burden of proof on the parents and rules for the school district. The administrative law judge approves the school district’s plan for Brian, “holding that Brian ‘would obtain significant, measurable educational benefit during the 1998-99 schools years” at either of the two schools offered by MCPS, according to MCPS brief.
After hearing the Schaffer’s appeal, the United States District Court for the District of Maryland reverses the administrative law judge’s ruling, putting the burden of proof back on the school district. The court remands the case back to the administrative law judge.
With the burden of proof on the school district, the administrative law judge now rules that the IEP proposed by the school district was “not appropriate” and awards the Schaffer’s half of the tuition they expended for the 1998-99 school year. Both sides appeal to the U.S. District Court.
Aug. 15, 2000
After the new ruling by the administrative law judge, Montgomery County Public Schools informs the Schaffers of a Learning Center at Walter Johnson High School. The program offers small classes taught by special educators for students with learning disabilities. The Schaffer’s private school contract for the 2000-01 academic year had become binding before the IEP meeting.
The United States files an amicus brief in federal court supporting the parents' position that the burden of proof should fall on the school system.
The court of appeals vacates the district court’s 2000 decision and remands the case for further proceedings but does not decide on the burden of proof issue.
Brian Schaffer enters the Learning Center at Walter Johnson High School.
District court again places burden of proof on the school district. The court awards the parents full reimbursement for the tuition they paid in the 1998-99 school year. The school district appeals to the Fourth Circuit, challenging the allocation of the burden of proof.
Brian graduates from Walter Johnson High School.
Congress enacts reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act.
July 29, 2004
A divided U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of appeals reverses the U.S. District Court, placing the burden of proof back on the parents. Judge Luttig writes the dissenting opinion.
Aug. 24, 2004
Court of appeals denies the petition for a rehearing.
Nov. 19, 2004
Schaffers ask the United States Supreme Court to consider the case.
Jan. 21, 2005
Jerry Weast, superintendent, Montgomery County Public Schools and its attorneys, file a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in response.
Feb. 22, 2005
The United States Supreme Court agrees to hear Schaffer v. Weast.
Reversing its position from 2000, the United States files an amicus brief in support of the school system in Schaffer v. Weast. It offers no explanation for the change except for "careful review of its administrative practice, the relevant case law, and the text, structure and history of the IDEA."
Monday, Oct. 3, 2005
John Roberts assumes his duties as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. President George Bush nominates White House counsel Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Sandra Day O’Connor.
Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2005
Supreme Court scheduled to hear Schaffer v. Weast, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools.