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Monday, May 21, 2007

Parma Couple Wins Supreme Court Case on Suing School District Without at Attorney

The New York Times reports that Jeff and Sandy Winkelmann of Parma, Ohio have won their federal lawsuit in the U.S. Supreme Court, establishing the right of parents of children with disabilities to appear without a lawyer in cases filed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which assures all children a “free appropriate public education.” The court did not actually rule that parents can act as attorneys for their children without a law license, but rather that parents have a separate, enforceable interest under the law that they can present on their own behalf, without legal representation.

School districts have dreaded this ruling, which is likely to greatly increase the number of people who file suits over the quality of education received by children with disabilities. However, parents of such children are going to find this greatly liberating, and they will certainly have more leverage in negotiating with schools about classroom procedures and conditions that affect their kids.

UPDATE: My oh my, Jill is good, isn't she? WLST is all over the Winkelman decision today, as in here, here and here.

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At May 21, 2007 3:17 PM , Jill said...

OPENERS (www.cleveland.com/openers) has a nice first-person account from the Winkelman's and I've got a link to the opinion itself here.

At May 21, 2007 8:27 PM , Jill said...

Hi Jeff -tx.

I think what the case will mean, re: your last paragraph, is that the leverage comes in the form of parents NOT being as concerned about whether they can afford taking a school district to court. Therefore, the districts will be more motivated to get it right at the due process hearings when service provision is being questioned. The districts know how much the parents know about their own kids' cases, and if parents don't have to worry that they can't afford to push the districts further, then they will have more energy and resources available to work the districts before lawsuits enter the picture.

I think it's a good move for everyone - it basically pushes the point of inevitability for when a district has to provide something (as well as determining when it simply can't) to an early stage and, so, ultimately, I believe that less resources overall will be spent.

Because remember - if the district doesn't have to go to court, they save money too. The parents are simply now on equal footing with the district, as far as the "threat of court" - there simply isn't one anymore because the parents don't have to pay attorneys.

NOW, having said that, of course it's still a burden on parents to feel that they might have to go to court if the district doesn't fall in line - or provide adequate accommodations/service as per the IEP. But in general, the playing field just got a whole lot more level.

Just how level, only special ed lawyers can really say - and we've got some great ones in town to ask.


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