Parents’ Rights to Sue for Disabled Children

Ideas and Issues

Washington     Rochester and the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) are also the home of the National Technical Institute of the Deaf, established by President Lyndon B. Johnson. Rochester and these graduates have made the area almost the deaf Mecca, where it is common to see the hearing and the hearing challenged conducting conversations in the fullest sense of sound, emotion, and physicality. It is a wonderful thing to behold. The school mainstreams the hearing impaired, and the in turn they have mainstreamed the entire community.

Public Law 142 (I believe that is the correct number) was supposed to usher in the reality for all differently able children in public schools, whether they were gifted in one way or impaired in another, the law that required that there be an independent educational plan (IEP) that assured that the student’s interests were being taken to heart in the process of public education. Given the failures of public education in communities throughout the country this probably seems farcical on its face, but for families of differently able children PL-142 is the lifeline that you grasp in hopes of fairness and a future for your child, so that there might be some even chance in a world of inequity that a child would not be permanently stranded in the darkness of illiteracy by the public system responsible for education.

The law turns out to be a slender rope between swimming and drowning. It does not guarantee “equal” education or the “best” educational alternatives for your child. The law simply requires that there be a plan for some level of education that is responsive to your child’s needs. In anger and frustration if you rage at the offering and its inadequacy, you have the right to challenge and appeal the IEP by refusing to sign and approve, with relief available in court.

In reality the law offers a “theoretical” right more than an entitlement. The time involved in suing would stretch on for years, during the same time that as a parent you would need to not lose a minute in the educational journey of your child, which is time for a differently able child that can absolutely not be lost. Furthermore, lawsuits are for the rich who can first find a lawyer who knows this area and then who can afford to employ them in the hopes of justice for your child.

There may be a break here that forces change. The United States Supreme Court — of all places — has recently ruled that parents do not need a lawyer to sue the schools under the Act. The ruling was a solid 7-2 majority. Part of this decision seems to be based according to Times’ reporter and legal expert, Linda Greenhouse, on the original Judiciary Act of 1789, that provides that “in all courts of the United States the parties may plead and conduct their own cases personally or by counsel.” Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas of course disagreed, not wanting too much power to drift into the hands of the citizens I suppose.

Here is hoping that the trickle of appeals and law suits will become a torrent and force school districts to have to finally rethink the entitlement of all children to public education and on the issues of fairness and equity leverage the resources and priority in this area to see the job done. Perhaps for parents of children living with the illusions of hope they had found originally in PL-142, there will finally be some real meaning to the law. Perhaps for all parents, there can be a hope that public schools will finally follow their mandate and educate the children.