Special Education Basics: Least Restrictive Environment
A basic understanding of the term “Least Restrictive Environment” or “LRE” is important for parents of children with special needs. LRE means that children with disabilities must be educated with children that are not disabled to the maximum extent appropriate. The law’s preference for keeping children in a general education classroom favors the use of resources rooms or push-in services over placing a child in a special education classroom. But if a general education classroom is not appropriate for the child, the school district must look for the next least restrictive environment.
To satisfy the LRE requirement, the school district must offer a continuum of placements to meet the needs of children with disabilities. In New York City, integrated co-teaching (“ICT”) classes, which combine general education and special education students, are generally the next least restrictive environment. This is followed by 12:1+1 classes (12 students, one special education teacher, one teacher assistant), 8:1+1, and 6:1+1. For students with multiple disabilities that are in need of programs that involve primarily habilitation and treatment, 12:1 + (3:1) (one special education teacher and three school personnel per student) are offered. If schooling in one of these settings is not appropriate for the child, the district may recommend a private day or residential placement, or home schooling.
The LRE requirement also looks beyond the classroom prescribed to the student to other facets of the child’s program. LRE, for instance, considers whether the student was included in non-academic activities or classes with his non-disabled peers. There is often no reason, for instance, for a student with a disability not to take gym or music class with non-disabled peers. LRE also requires that the student be educated as close as possible to the student’s home. This consideration comes into play particularly when private day or residential schools are considered.
Parents should not confuse the LRE requirement with the requirement that the school district provide a program that is reasonably calculated to provide educational benefits. These are separate requirements, and it is possible for a school district to provide an appropriate program, yet fail to meet the LRE requirement. However it is also possible that a district’s attempt to place the student in the LRE could sabotage the appropriateness of the child’s education. ICT classes, for instance, are often recommended for students with average to high intelligence, but with issues with executive functioning or attention. Although relatively non-restrictive, an ICT classroom may not be appropriate for this student because ICT classrooms can contain up to thirty students.
Parents should also be mindful of the LRE requirement when unilaterally placing their child in a private special education program. In this context, the restrictiveness of the program is a factor, but not dispositive of the appropriateness of the placement. Still, there are degrees of restrictiveness that courts will examine. For example, a court may hold that a residential facility is not appropriate if the evidence shows that the child could be educated at a day school.
This post really only scratches the surface of the meaning of LRE and how it has been interpreted by courts. Stay tuned for future posts that further explore this issue!