Sweeney Measure To Return Burden Of Proof To Schools In Special Education Cases Clears Senate

TRENTON – A measure sponsored by Senator Steve Sweeney which would return the burden of proof in special education cases to school districts was unanimously approved today by the full Senate.

“It only makes sense to require school districts to bear the burden of proof in these disputes because they have access to detailed educational records and resources that outline the needs for special education curricula, as well as knowledge of federal and state laws regarding special education,” said Senator Sweeney, D-Gloucester, Cumberland and Salem. “This is not a new issue here in New Jersey. Over the years, the Supreme Court has heard a number of similar cases and most recently, it has deemed that most parents have neither the financial means, nor the detailed knowledge of special education issues.”

Senator Sweeney’s measure, S-2604, would require school districts to bear the burden of proof in legal disputes against parents of special education students. Often the disputes occur because parents and schools cannot agree on a child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP), which requires input from parents and teachers. IEPs help to determine class placement and the necessity for special educational services, said Senator Sweeney.

“More often that not, parents have a limited knowledge of the legal system and special education issues. Requiring them to bear the burden of proof in cases with their children places these parents at an automatic disadvantage,” said Senator Sweeney.

In the 1989 case of Lascari v. the Ramapo Hills Board of Education, the State Supreme Court decided that the burden of proof in special education disputes should lie with the school district. It was decided that parents should be responsible for questioning the appropriateness of the IEP, but that the district should bear the burden of proof, said Senator Sweeney.

In the 2006 case if Schaffer v. Weast, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the burden of proof should rest with the party seeking relief – whether it is the school district or a parent. This decision, however, did not contain language allowing States that had statutes assigning the burden of proof to a particular party to override the Supreme Court decision, Senator Sweeney said.

The State Public Advocate researched the issue, and recommended that school districts always bear the burden of proof in these disputes, said Senator Sweeney.

Currently, ten states and the District of Columbia have statutorily placed the burden of proof on school districts.

The legislation now heads to Governor Corzine’s desk, where his signature will make it State law.

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