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Final Position Paper
When a student is ruled eligible to receive special education and/or related services, a topic for the Individualized Education Program (IEP) team is to discuss where the student will receive services to address his or her identified area(s) of need. This determination is referred to as the student’s Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) Section 300.114 of Part B clearly defines that a public agency must include students with disabilities and educate them with typical peers “to the maximum extent appropriate (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act).” Yet today, a child with a disability attending one school district can be served in a full inclusion classroom with typical peers the whole day and move to another school district and it be determined their LRE is in a full-time special education classroom joining typical peers for only lunch and activity. According to Alquraini (2013) the lack of definitive language included within IDEA has allowed school districts across the United States to provide special education and related services inconsistently, thus increasing the difficulty in providing appropriate education for students with disabilities.
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The purpose of this position paper is to review the laws that have helped shape the process for determining a student’s least restrictive environment, as well as, discuss how the limited definitive language of the law is potentially more harmful to students with disabilities when school districts are determining the most appropriate place to provide educational services. Marx et al., identified that the LRE of a child can be linked to the idea that “separate is never equal” determined in the court case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 (2014). A common misconception of most is that special education is a placement, but in 2004 the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) clearly defines special education as services within a child’s IEP (Marx et al., 2014). Since 1975, when the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) was passed, the law has required that students with disabilities receive a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) within their least restrictive environment (LRE) at the expense of the public (Marx et al., 2014). Although the law has provided a standard to include students with disabilities with their typical peers, school districts have interpreted it as they see most appropriate creating inconsistency within services (Alquraini, 2013).
Relevancy to Students
All students deserve access to high quality education that will promote their level of academic achievement. A student’s least restrictive environment (LRE) effects the education a child is exposed to. In the general education classroom, the expectation of teaching grade level academic standards is higher. When students with disabilities are exposed to these high academic standards, they tend to achieve at a higher level. “Research indicates that reading skills for students with severe disabilities in elementary schools in inclusive settings improved by 31.7%, and mathematical skills for these students in elementary schools improved by 23.9% (Alquraini, 2013).” With this research, why are families of students with disabilities still fighting to have their child included in the general education classroom? The answer is, non-conclusive; yet Marx et al. discusses that conflicting personal beliefs of members of the IEP team regarding educational placement can lead to “unintentional violations of the LRE principle” (2014).
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) passed in 2004 “guarantees the right of all students with disabilities to receive their education in the LRE” requiring schools to consider two mandates (Alquraini, 2013). First, a school district must educate students with disabilities with their typical peers to the “maximum extent appropriate” with the use of supplementary aids and services. If the severity of the child’s disability inhibits their ability to learn in the general education class proving limited educational benefit for the child, the general education classroom may not be the child’s LRE, and a more restrictive setting may be considered to provide educational benefit to the student. Secondly, teachers and administrators should understand the LRE requirements and be provided training to support their ability to provide the most appropriate LRE, as outlined in IDEA (Alquraini, 2013).
Prior to LRE being defined, the principle was becoming popular in the 1960’s when educators began to advocate for additional educational settings and a continuum of placement to best service students with a variety of educational needs (Alquraini, 2013). The least restrictive environment was first defined in 1975 in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) more commonly known as Public Law 94-192. This Act required that children 5 to 21 years of age with disabilities to be educated with their non-disabled peers “to the maximum extent possible regardless of the nature of their disabilities (Alquraini, 2013).” In the 1970’s mainstreaming became the teaching practice, referred to as providing instruction in the LRE to students with disabilities (Alquraini, 2013). In 1990, the EHA was revised and renamed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA, a federal law governing “the provision of special education and related services to children with disabilities” continued to support students with disabilities being educated with typical peers in their neighborhood schools (Alquraini, 2013). The term mainstreaming was replaced in IDEA with the practice of inclusion. Inclusion simply means that the child has access to a free and appropriate public education in their home school. IDEA was amended in 2004 and is now known as Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA). This law, which continued to support the inclusion of students with disabilities in the general education class, included the phrase “to the greatest extent possible” guaranteeing that students with disabilities be educated in their LRE (Alquraini, 2013).
Legislation has not clearly defined LRE, nor does it have intentions of doing so. The circuit courts have purposely not outlined LRE because “courts lack the specialized knowledge and experience” to determine “difficult questions of educational policy (Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller, 2010).” This comes at a price for families who disagree with the school districts determinations of LRE for their child. It is common for “a student determined to be receiving FAPE in the LRE in one district may find his or her LRE different within another district (Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller, 2010).” When parents oppose their child’s LRE they must file due process which includes hearing officers. If a resolution cannot be made, the next step is district court. If an appeal is made after district court, the case will go to circuit court. Circuit court decisions are legally binding in their jurisdiction only. There are 11 circuit courts across the United States; the state of Mississippi is included in Circuit 5 with Louisiana and Texas. U.S. Supreme court rulings are the only decisions that are applicable to the United States. At this time, the Supreme Court “has not heard and ruled on an LRE case (Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller, 2010).” Case law is the only reference circuit court has to use an example for “best practice” in making determinations for students with disabilities regarding LRE (Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller, 2010).
Authors Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller (2010) provide a list of U.S. Circuit and U.S. District Court cases that have been heard and the vital question(s) for IEP teams to consider when discussing a child’s educational placement. Daniel R. R. v State Board of Education (1989) was identified as a key case whose end result provided a two-part test to help school districts determine if a student is receiving special education services in his or her LRE (Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller, 2010). Daniel, a 6-year-old boy with Down Syndrome, was attending a half-day class in the regular kindergarten classroom and spending the other half of the day in a special education classroom. Daniel required a large amount of the teacher’s attention, and made limited educational progress on a modified curriculum, therefore the team decided to remove Daniel from the regular kindergarten classroom. Daniel’s parents disagreed with this decision. A hearing officer agreed with the school district’s decision, so Daniel’s parents appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court, who in turn agreed with Daniel’s parents. The court determined the school district had not complied with the IDEA least restrictive environment requirements (Alquraini, 2013). Questions school districts should consider from this case can be found in Table 4 (Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller, 2010):
1. Can the education be achieved in the general education classroom with supplemental services?
2. If the student is placed in a restrictive setting, is the student integrated to the maximum extent possible?
Determining a student’s LRE is complicated and teams need to consider all options to meet the educational needs of the student. Circuit Court 9 heard the case Sacramento City Unified School District v. Rachel H. (1994). In this case the school district appealed a ruling made by the district court who determined Rachel, an11-year-old with a severe cognitive disability, would be best served in a full time general education classroom with necessary supports. In the end, the Ninth Circuit determined the school district had not provided evidence that Rachel would not benefit from receiving education in the regular education classroom (Alquraini, 2013). Questions school districts should consider from this case can be found in Table 4 (Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller, 2010):
1. What are the educational benefits of the special vs. general education setting?
2. What are the social benefits of being education with his or her peers?
3. What is the negative impact of the student with disabilities in the general education classroom?
4. What are the costs of general education placement?
Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller (2010) identified questions that when school districts fail to address can result in potential LRE violations which may lead to consequences enforceable by the court. In both cases, Greer v. Rome City School District (1991) and Oberti v. Board of Education (1993) it was found that the school district did not provide the supplementary aids and services or provide an adequate IEP, therefore placement in a more restrictive setting was found to be an inappropriate educational placement. “If a student can be successful in the least restrictive of settings on the continuum of alternative placements established by the IEP team, then that setting becomes the student’s primary placement (Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller, 2010).”
The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) include information on a continuum of alterative placements and outline the requirements of a school district. This continuum must include alternative placements for students receiving special education and related services, and supplementary aids and services for students included in the general education classroom (Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller, 2010).
A visual of continuum of alternative placement is shown below:
General Education with accommodations and modifications
Hospital or Residential institution
Figure 1 (Rozalski, Stewart, & Miller, 2010)
When making decisions regarding the child’s LRE, Yell explains this decision comes second to providing a child a Free and Appropriate Public Education (pg. 256).
When discussing LRE, there are two common ideologies. First, a student’s “LRE is always the general education setting (Marx et al., 2014).” Supporters interpret the intent of IDEIA (2004) was to define LRE as only occurring in the general education classroom. Those who support this motto hold high expectations for students with disabilities educating them with typical peers and consider the continuum of alternate placements as identifying the appropriate supplemental aid and services for the student to participate in the general education setting. The requirement of FAPE is intended for students with disabilities to have the same learning opportunities as everyone and receive educational benefit. When placing a child in the general education setting no justification is required, yet when removing the child from the general education federal regulations say clarification is needed (Marx et al., 2014). These reasons are the foundation for those who support the general education setting is always a student’s LRE.
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The second ideology is “LRE is the setting in which a child’s needs can best be met (Marx et al., 2014).” Students have the right to a free and appropriate public education, not an inclusive education. Those who support this ideal conclude that the IEP team uses professional judgement to determine the LRE for each student considering the students strengths, present level of performance and functional performance, educational needs, results of recent assessments, and parental and student input if applicable. Services for the student should be provided in their LRE as stated in IDEIA (2004). This statement eludes to the thought that there is more than one placement option to address the unique needs of students with disabilities. Services for the student should be considered based on the child’s individual needs instead of considering the disability category. IDEIA (2004) also included the statement “educated to the maximum extent appropriate with their nondisabled peers” implying that LRE is not the same for each child (Marx et al., 2014).
The special education teacher or other designated school district personnel must be ethically responsible during IEP meetings to provide the appropriate information regarding IDEIA requirements regarding LRE. Members of the IEP team may choose to bypass the general education setting as the first consideration for a child’s LRE. Teams must remember that the justification is required when students do not receive special services in the general education setting. Families should consider the schools proposed placement option; but know the facts and advocate for what they feel is best for their child. If a school’s IEP team views are controversial, strategies should be used to come to an appropriate placement conclusion best for the child including: knowing the law, use guiding LRE questions, always start with the general education setting, and remember that special education is a service, not a placement (Marx et al., 2014).
It is common today for IEP teams to develop draft IEP’s and present them to the parents at the child’s IEP meeting. This method is effective for a school’s time management but has eliminated the true “team approach” that an IEP meeting once provided parents and teachers to collaborate about the child’s strengths and weaknesses. Since 1975, students with disabilities have been integrated more than ever imagined, yet barriers still exist. The most common barrier is “individual ideological beliefs (Marx et al., 2014).” As educators it is our duty to always consider the general education setting for every child first. Also, when having placement discussions, it is important for teams to review the questions that courts have outlined in previous cases regarding LRE issues to eliminate violations of the law (Marx et al., 2014).
The topic of a student’s least restrictive environment will continue to be controversial and inconsistent until the federal law includes LRE requirements for IEP teams when discussing placement for a student. “School districts should adopt the standards or test that were used by circuit courts as a general guide to determine standards of LRE (Alquraini, 2013).” Since the circuit courts are able to make their own rulings regarding LRE, inconsistencies will continue to be prevalent and districts will continue to provide students with disabilities the continuum of services they see fit.
As seen in the District Court case Espino v. Besterio (1981), the school district felt that Raul could attend a regular class and was moved from a separate school to his neighborhood school. Raul required air conditioning to help regulate his temperature due to his sympathetic nervous system. Unlike the separate school, the regular education classroom was not air conditioned, therefore the school built Raul a cubicle within the classroom for him to go in as he needed to regulate his body temperature. Raul ended up spending more than half of his day in the cubicle missing out on social interaction with his typical peers. The court identified the cubicle as isolation, with no educational benefit, and therefore violated his FAPE. Yet the school district claimed they had provided Raul FAPE by including him with his typical peers and building him a cubicle. The district claimed they could not afford the cost of air conditioning all regular education classrooms and did not want to air condition one class and not the others (Espino v. Besterio, 1981).
Until an LRE standard is made for all school districts to follow, families will continue to advocate and fight for what they feel is best for their child to be included with their peers. In a video entitled Your Special Education Rights: Least Restrictive Environment, the hosts stated “in but not with” when discussing the inclusion of students with disabilities. This statement stood out as we consider what is best for students with disabilities; to be educated in the general education classroom or to be with the general education population. These statements have completely different meanings and should not be interpreted as the same. Students should benefit from the education they are being provided. Their environment should support their educational benefit. Developing a consistent requirement for providing educational services for students with disabilities should be a goal we strive to provide.
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