Six-year-old M.L., born autistic and severely retarded, was not toilet-trained, had no communication skills, and threw frequent temper tantrums that on one occasion resulted in another child being bitten. Federal law, 20 U.S.C. ? 1414, requires public schools, through an extensive and complicated procedure, to make accommodations to “educate” M.L. When the Federal Way School District offered to put M.L. in a special program with other autistic children, his parents protested, though they had not participated in meetings with school officials about the best possible solution. An eight-day hearing before an administrative law judge was held; the ALJ ruled against the parents’ objections. The parents appealed to federal district court. The federal district court ruled that the school district’s proposal complied with federal law. The parents appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The appellate court affirmed the district court decision.
However, a few days ago, the Ninth Circuit withdrew its opinion affirming the case, and asked for additional briefing on the procedures used to make the decision, raising the possibility that it will issue a new opinion requiring the school district to hold more hearings about the appropriate individualized education plan for M.L.
Press coverage of the case has focused almost entirely on the irrelevant issue that the parents were unhappy that some of the regular students were teasing M.L., who was apparently oblivious to the name-calling (which took place for all of five days). (Kathy George, “Judges reconsider teasing case”, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Dec. 22; M.L. v. Federal Way School Dist.).
M.L. is unable to interact with other students; the educational specialists found that he would disrupt the learning of the regular students through his behavior if he were in a “mainstreamed” class; they further found that he was unlikely to learn anything in a regular class that he couldn’t learn in a special education class. Essentially, M.L.’s parents put their school district and their fellow taxpayers through what will be four rounds of litigation (with more possibly to follow), including an eight-day hearing, in the hopes of having the psychic satisfaction of knowing that their son was sitting next to a non-disabled student instead of another autistic student.
The lawyers aren’t doing anything wrong here; the courts aren’t doing anything wrong here. The problem rests with Congress, which created a statute that gives such parents the ability to impose huge costs on a school district that is trying to ensure an education for all of its students. Parents of non-disabled children aren’t able to bring lawsuits complaining that their children’s education is being shortchanged because of a disruptive student or that their children aren’t being adequately challenged to reach their full potential. Such rights are vested in the parents of the disabled, and public schools, because of the unfunded mandate from Congress, must devote large sums of taxpayer money to lawyers to defend basic educational decisions. It’s a wonder that more schools don’t give in and “mainstream” disruptive students to the detriment of their other charges. (Ylan Q. Mui, “Including Ashley”, Washington Post, Nov. 4).
Public schools have numerous problems, but it is worth noting that the comparisons between the efficiency of public and private schools often fail to take account of the huge burden imposed on local school districts by the federal government.