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Maryland Parents Seeking Legislation to Shift IEP 'Burden of Proof'

Parents in the Maryland school district that was at the heart of a 2005 Supreme Court case that determined the burden of proof in disputes over individualized education programs are hoping, for the third time, that lawmakers will pass a change they consider to be more friendly to families, reports the Gaithersburg (Md.) Gazette.

The educational blueprint for students with disabilities, IEPs are created in partnership with teachers, administrators and parents. Disputes are rare in most states, but in 2005, a case brought by a family against the 146,000-student Montgomery County, Md. district made it all the way to the nation's highest court. Lower courts had ruled that the evidence brought by the family and by the school district, located in a suburb of Washington D.C., was in "equipoise"—each side was equally balanced, so the issue turned on which side had the burden of proving its case. 

In 2005, the high court ruled in Schaffer v. Weast that the party that initiates a complaint over an IEP bears the burden in proving that the educational plans are insufficient. Usually parents are the parties that complain about an IEP, so advocates for families said that the ruling pitted them against well-financed school districts that have many experts at their disposal. 

Though the Supreme Court decided the burden of proof question, the ruling did not preclude states from enacting their own laws on the issue. And that's just what states like New Jersey and New York did in the following years, passing legislation that shifts the burden of proof back to school districts. In those states, school districts now must prove that an IEP is appropriate. Also, some states had laws on the books at the time of the ruling outlining which party held the burden of proof. The ruling only affected states whose laws were silent on the issue, such as Maryland. 

"Right now parents can lose cases that they should be winning on the merits because they're so out-resourced and they have the burden of proof," said Julie Reiley, the founder of the Maryland Coalition for Special Education Rights and Burden of Proof, in an interview with the newspaper. 


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