- The Washington Times - Monday, May 21, 2007

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Parents don’t need to hire a lawyer to sue public-school districts over their children’s special-education needs, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

The decision came in the case of an autistic boy from Ohio, whose parents had argued they were effectively denied access to the courts because they could not afford a lawyer.

Federal law gives every child the right to a free, appropriate public education, which in the case of special-needs children sometimes means enrollment in a private facility.

But most federal courts had concluded that parents who are not lawyers and who want to challenge decisions have to hire an attorney.

Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the court, said parents have legal rights under the Individuals With Disabilities in Education Act, the main federal special-education law.

“They are, as a result, entitled to prosecute IDEA claims on their own behalf,” Justice Kennedy said. Seven justices joined the majority decision written by Justice Kennedy. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas partially dissented.

The court sided with Jeff and Sandee Winkelman and their son, Jacob, in their fight against the Parma, Ohio, school district.

The Winkelmans can’t afford a lawyer or the cost of private schooling for Jacob. Neither parent is a lawyer.

The parents objected to the Parma schools’ plan to educate Jacob at a public school. They wanted the district to pay for his $56,000 yearly enrollment in a private school that specializes in educating autistic children.

The Winkelmans have spent about $30,000 in legal fees since first contesting Jacob’s treatment in 2003. Mr. Winkelman has taken a second job while his wife has researched previous court rulings and written her own filings.

Mrs. Winkelman said she might press the case on behalf of her 9-year-old son with one of several lawyers who have offered to represent the family for free. If that doesn’t work out, she said, the family would proceed without an attorney.

“I would prefer to give Jacob the best chance with an attorney. That’s the best-case scenario,” she said after the ruling was announced. “I’m very pleased. It restored a lot of faith I have in the system.”

It is not clear how many parents forgo lawsuits because they can’t afford them, although advocates for disabled children said in court papers that most parents of disabled children lack the means to hire a lawyer.

Parents unhappy with a district’s plan can appeal the decision through an administrative process. If they remain dissatisfied, they can file a civil lawsuit on their child’s behalf, federal courts have said. At that point, however, most courts have said the parents must hire a lawyer.

Whether Jacob should have private schooling at public expense was not before the Supreme Court, only his parents’ right to go into federal court without a lawyer.

The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled in the school district’s favor. Yesterday’s ruling overturned that decision.

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