Story Highlights• Justices say parents of autistic boy can sue district without lawyer
• Justices find case fits exception in federal law
• Sandee and Jeff Winkelman say they can't afford a lawyer
• The parents are suing an Ohio school district for their special needs son
By Bill Mears
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sandee Winkelman calls her experience with her Ohio school district "horrific" and accuses officials of "bullying" her over who should pay for the special education their autistic son receives.
But Winkelman and her husband, Jeff, won a round Monday when the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in their favor regarding a legal sticking point in their lawsuit against their local school board.
The justices concluded federal law includes an exception permitting the Winkelmans to represent themselves without a lawyer in their ongoing lawsuit. They had argued they could not afford a lawyer and better understand their child's special needs.
"The parents enjoy enforceable rights at the administrative stage," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy, "and it would be inconsistent with the statutory scheme to bar them from continuing to assert those rights in federal court." He added the parents can sue for their child's needs "on their own behalf."
The Winkelmans say their son, Jacob, was subject to emotional "meltdowns" because of his autism. In 2003 they enrolled him in the private Monarch School, which specializes in educating the autistic through intensive one-on-one interaction. He continues to attend that school.
For the previous two years, they boy had attended another private facility that both his parents and the school district had agreed was appropriate. The school district paid the tuition. But county officials then said they believed Jacob could get the speech and occupational therapy he needed at Pleasant Valley Elementary School.
The Winkelmans objected to the school district's proposed individualized education program for Jacob in a public school setting and filed a due process claim, without benefit of legal assistance. They also wanted taxpayers to continue paying the $56,000 yearly tuition at Monarch.
The federal Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act allows every child access to a "free appropriate public education" -- but for some disabled children that can be at an accredited private school. But the question of who should pay was not at issue before the justices Monday, only the right to go to federal court without an attorney.
The Winkelmans' administrative request for relief was denied, and further appeals followed. The couple then filed a civil rights lawsuit in federal court, which required a lawyer to argue on their behalf. A federal appeals court in Cincinnati ruled against them.
The Bush administration and a dozen Democratic members of Congress supported the Winkelmans. Their victory will make it easier for parents who either cannot afford or refuse to get legal help the legal venue to challenge IEP plans.
The U.S. Department of Education did not have clear statistics on the number of special needs children who could be affected by this ruling.
There was no immediate reaction from the parents in this case, or their lawyer, but in an interview the CNN in February, Sandee Winkelman urged parents in a similar situation to continue fighting.
"Every day you're working toward a goal," she said. "And it's frustrating when you don't see that happening in a timely fashion. It's scary, because with my children, the opportunity for learning is so short."