Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Least Restrictive Environment Revisited

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) has long been a fundamental part of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The IDEA mandate with respect to LRE states that,

To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and 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 of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.

We have written about LRE before, and have thought that it was such a settled part of current law and practice that it was not subject to question. We were wrong. A recent blog post on the website of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, urges that Congress consider changing the LRE requirements of the IDEA to look only at the educational benefit to be provided by placing students in the least restrictive environment and not to consider benefits to such students that are not strictly educational, such as communication, collaboration, and social skills. The blog also suggests that revised guidelines on LRE, "could lead to a reduction of litigation ... [and have the] potential to ease the educational, financial, and emotional strains that are placed on parents and school officials when special education litigation reaches the courts." In short, the author wants to reduce the cost of litigating LRE issues when parents exert their rights to have their children educated in the least restrictive educational environment.

Our colleagues at COPAA, The Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, quickly responded to the blog post. In a detailed public post, the COPAA leadership discussed the court cases where LRE has been considered (and well settled) and noted that, "including students with disabilities in general education benefits students without disabilities. Research shows that time spent with non-disabled peers not only benefits students socially and connects them with their community but also enhances academic achievement for students with disabilities."

COPAA also posted a blog written by educational leaders which noted that LRE was not being appropriately implemented in all parts of the country and urged that it be expanded -- not limited -- and properly utilized for all students. These leaders did agree with the AASA blogger that the time and energy now used for litigating LRE issues could be put to better use, but noted that their recommendations for how to reduce such litigation were quite different. The COPAA bloggers wrote:

"We support efforts to scale-up the use of universal design for learning principles to all classrooms. We support efforts to expand access to communication and assistive technology to all students who need it. And we support school improvement and restructuring efforts ... including greater family and community engagement, strong administrative leadership, multi-tiered systems of supports used with fidelity, values- and evidence-based inclusive policy and practice, and integration of all support services for the benefit of all students."

We hope the folks at AASA -- and in Congress -- are paying attention.

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