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Sweeney: Burden Should Be On Schools To Prove Special Education Plans Are Adequate

TRENTON – The Senate Education Committee approved legislation today sponsored by Senator Steve Sweeney that would clarify New Jersey law to put the burden of proof on school districts when disputes arise with parents in the delivery of special education services to children.

“The school district has a distinct advantage over parents in these cases when it comes to expertise and financial resources,” said Senator Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem. “It should be incumbent upon the district to prove the adequacy of a special needs IEP (individual education plan) when a parent claims that their child is not getting the level of support they need.”

According to Senator Sweeney, after Congress passed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975, schools were required to develop IEPs for every child with a disability. The IEP is developed with input from both the student’s teachers and parents. Issues such as placement of the child and special services are included in this plan.

Senator Sweeney points out that if the parents or the local school district cannot agree on the child’s plan, the IDEA allows either party to dispute the plan through mediation on a due process hearing. Until 2006, the burden of proof in such disputes fell upon the school. Due to a series of federal court decisions in recent years, the burden of proof now falls upon the party that disputes the IEP, which is most often the parents of the child.

“This complete reversal in 2006 has made it much harder for the parents of special needs students to challenge inadequate IEPs. Parents shouldn’t be forced to spend their time and money to build a case that their son or daughter is not receiving the education they deserve. It’s an additional burden these hard-working parents don’t deserve,” explained Senator Sweeney.

Senator Sweeney’s bill, S-2604, amends state law to explicitly place the burden of proof on school districts rather than on the party seeking relief.

“Without this protection, we’re going to continue to see fewer parents challenge insufficient IEPs because they don’t have the resources to hire an attorney or expertise in special education to prove their case,” added Senator Sweeney. “That means it will be easier for school districts to cut corners and that fewer special needs students will get all of the services they need to receive a thorough education.”

The bill was approved by a vote of 3-0. It now goes the full Senate for approval.

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