The Promise Of A Least Restrictive Environment

The IDEA strongly prefers that children with special needs be educated to the “maximum extent appropriate” with typically developing peers and removal should only occur “when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.” This preference is commonly referred to as the least restrictive environment (LRE) and is one of the underlying mandates of the IDEA.

Placement is not a specific location or “place” that a child with special needs is sent for education. Placement encompasses the carefully considered environment and services provided to the student in order to achieve the IEP goals. If the services a child receives require that he be removed from the general education classroom, then this will be reflected in the IEP document. However, removal for any length of time should be approached with caution. The IDEA provides that “special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.”

The amount of time that a child spends with typically developing peers is usually expressed as a percentage of a child’s day. If you look at a school district’s free appropriate public education (FAPE – rhymes with grape) offer there will be a services page following the annual goals and benchmarks. On the services page of the IEP document the district will state the amount of time that a child will spend with typically developing peers and the amount of time that a child will spend outside of the general education classroom. Often parents do not realize that their child is being pulled out of class for 30% of the day for RSP and OT and S/L services and express surprise when confronted with the number.

The school district must ensure that there is a continuum of alternative placements available for children with disabilities. 34 C.F.R. §300.115(a). The continuum generally ranges from: a general education classroom, a resource classroom or rsp room for specialized academic instruction, special education classroom or a special day class (sdc), special education day school, residential schools, and instruction delivered in hospitals or at a child’s home.

The general education classroom in the school the student would attend if not disabled should be the first placement option in the continuum considered. Discussion of placement considerations should begin with the general education class and revolve around services that can be delivered inside the classroom. These are called supplementary aides or services and are to be determined based upon the child’s unique needs. Hence the individualized aspect of the IEP. Only when a child cannot adequately access his curriculum even with these push-in services such as a one-to-one aide implementing a behavior support plan or in-class tutoring paralleling the academic material, should the discussion turn to a more restrictive placement.

It is helpful to begin placement discussions at an IEP meeting with a consideration of the general education classroom and services that can be provided inside the classroom. If a more restrictive environment is being offered before the entire IEP team discusses the continuum of placement, it would be entirely appropriate for a parent to ask that the district detail the services that were considered and rejected. The district cannot make a pre-determined offer. Parents are an integral part of the IEP team and the entire IEP team must be involved in this important discussion.

If a parent disputes a district’s placement offer by filing for due process, than an administrative law judge must determine whether the student’s placement is in the least restrictive environment. Different states rely upon different rubrics but most use a balancing test similar to the one used in California. California relies upon the Rachel H. standard delineated in the seminal ninth circuit case Sacramento City Unified School District v. Rachel H. The Rachel H. standard contemplates the following four factors:

1)       The educational benefits of placement full-time in a regular class;

2)       The non-academic benefits of such placement;

3)       The effect the child would have on the teacher and children in the regular class, and

4)       The costs of mainstreaming the child.

These factors are considered as a whole and balanced against each other in determining placement. The first factor considers whether the child would be able to sufficiently access his academic curriculum with supplementary aides and services in a general education classroom to receive any educational benefit. The second looks at the social benefits that might accrue in a general education classroom. The third factor often scrutinizes the child’s behavior and propensity for disrupting with physical or verbal outbursts. The fourth factor considers whether the cost of educating a child with special needs in a general education setting would actually significantly impact the education of other students. No one factor is determinative and the IDEA has a strong preference for placement in a general education classroom to the maximum extent possible.

While states have different methods for determining least restrictive environment, the underlying theme is the same. To the maximum extent appropriate a child should be educated with his non-disabled peers. It should be the mission of every IEP team to consider every option available to a child with special needs in an effort to honor this explicit federal mandate.