School districts must educate children with special needs in their “least restrictive environment” (LRE). The requirement to provide an educational program in the LRE is often referred to as “mainstreaming.”
But what does least restrictive environment mean?
Simply put, it means that a special education student must be educated with nondisabled peers to the “maximum extent appropriate.” This means special education students may be removed for the general education classroom only when the nature and severity of his or her disabilities is such that education in regular classes, even with the use of supplementary aids and services, cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
There is a strong preference for “mainstreaming” in special education law. However, the law also recognizes that some educational settings are not appropriate for some students with special needs. This determination is made of a case-by-case basis rather than by disability category.
How to determine the least restrictive environment for students with disabilities?
In California, the least restrictive environment is determined by looking at four factors. These factors were set forth by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in Sacramento City Sch. Dist. v. Rachel H. (9th Cir. 1994) 14 F.3d 1398. The four factors are:
(1) Educational benefit
(2) Non-academic benefit
(3) Effect on the teacher and children in the regular class
Applying the Rachel H. Factors
Educational benefit. The IEP Team (and a reviewing court in cases where a dispute has arisen) will consider whether the student will receive an educational benefit in the regular classroom.
Non-academic benefit. This is the social component of the educational experience.
Effect on teacher and classmates. Here, the IEP Team will consider two things: (1) whether the student engages in disruptive behaviors that impede his or her education or the education of his or her peers; (2) whether the student requires an inordinate amount of the teacher's classroom time such that other student's would suffer from the lack of attention.
Costs. The IEP Team will weigh and consider the costs involved in educating the student in the general education classroom versus an alternative classroom setting, such as a special day class.
Understanding placement options
School districts are required to have a continuum of placement options available for children with special needs. The continuum of placement options includes, but is not limited to:
- regular education;
- resource specialist programs;
- designated instruction and services;
- special classes;
- nonpublic school;
- nonsectarian school;
- state special school;
- specially designed instruction in settings other than classrooms;
- itinerant instruction in settings other than classrooms; and
- using telecommunication instruction in the home or instructions in hospitals or institutions.
The above list is extensive, but many of the placements can be further subdivided—and they often are. For example, one “special class” might serve children with mild-to-moderate disabilities while another class serves children with moderate-to-severe disabilities.
As you can see, there are many options. These options also provide ample opportunities for IEP Teams to disagree about what placement is the most appropriate such that it would provide the student with his or her least restrictive environment. If you have questions about educational placements, please give my office a call.