May 2007 - Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a decision that sent shock waves through the educational community, gave parents greater say in guaranteeing the needs of their children’s special needs are met. In a ruling on Winkelman v. Parma City School District, the court ruled that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (P.L. 94-142) (IDEA), that ensures children a free appropriate public education, gives rights to parents. Parents may represent themselves in federal court when disputes arise between the school district and themselves on what is the best policy for educating the child.
Six justices joined Associate Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who wrote the opinion. Kennedy wrote, "It is not a novel proposition to say that parents have a recognized legal interest in the education and upbringing of their child." The case resulted from the efforts of Jeff and Sandee Winkelman who sued the Parma, Ohio school district on behalf of their son Jeff who is autistic. The Winkelman’s stressed that they could not afford a lawyer to pursue their dispute with the school board over its decision that their son’s needs could be met in a public school. Federal courts allow people to represent themselves, but not others – without the aid of a lawyer. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit dismissed the Winkelman's case on behalf of their son since they lacked a lawyer. The Supreme Court reversed the decision. The 7 justices stated that a comprehensive reading of IDEA emphatically states that parents have rights at each stage of the process and therefore they can represent themselves in a federal court. "The parents enjoy enforceable rights at the administrative stage and it is inconsistent with the statutory scheme to bar them from continuing to assert these rights in federal court," Kennedy wrote. How are school officials dealing with this decision? School officials, who wanted to remain anonymous, told me, "It could be a Pandora’s box, or it could be a sniffle." In other words, they are adopting a wait and see position. Parents buoyed by the decision are considering their options and there may or may not be an avalanche to be their own lawyers. "Despite this ruling, it’s a difficult decision to be the lawyer of your disabled school age child," a parent of a child with a disability told me.