Placement & the Least Restrictive Environment

We’ve mentioned placement and Least Restrictive Environment (“LRE”), in previous postings. Today’s posting focuses specifically on these aspects of special education.

 

As discussed previously, placement is the last decision made by an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”) team and is that setting in which a student’s measurable annual goals can be met using the services determined necessary by the IEP team and which is the least restrictive when compared to all other possible educational settings in which the goals could be met using the services determined necessary. In other words, once you’ve figured out goals and services, the IEP team has to examine all of the possible settings in which the services could be provided and the goals met, then pick the one that is the least restrictive.

 
“Least restrictive” is a relative term specific to the individual child. What may be least restrictive for one child may not be least restrictive for another. The language found at 34 CFR ? 300.114 states that:  “To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities … are educated with children who are nondisabled;”  and “Special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only if 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.”

What this means in plain English to parents is that if your child’s needs can be met in the regular education setting with push-in supports, the regular education setting is the LRE. The public schools cannot segregate special education students from the regular education setting purely on the basis that these students have disabilities. The needs created by their respective disabilities have to be so severe in nature or so unique to serve, that the necessary services cannot feasibly be pushed into the regular education setting and met with success.

So, how do you know when it’s time to consider pull-out options or alternative placements to the regular education setting? It all depends on the child.

Let’s say, for instance, that you have a teenage daughter with significant social anxiety. She’s become a recluse and refuses to go to school at all and refuses to go places with the family except at night with a hoodie pulled over her head. Her IEP includes a behavioral goal targeting attendance, since this is an area of measurable need that requires specific attention in her IEP.

Clearly, regardless of how academically capable she might be, you’re not going to successfully place her on a comprehensive high school campus in a whole bunch of different classes throughout the day and passing in the halls between classes, much less lunch and PE.  A very small class with pushed-in mental health services on a continuation school campus may be more appropriate.

 

 

As another example, let’s say you have an 11-year-old son with delayed cognition, impaired attention, and mild autistic like behaviors, most of which involves perseverative thought, ritualistic behaviors, and inappropriate dialoging skills. While it would be possible to push an appropriate curricular program into the regular education setting, the reality is that the inattention could easily make the regular education setting highly distractible to this young man and his behaviors could require constant adult redirection. It could quickly become an exercise in frustration for everyone involved and derail not only this young man’s receipt of an education, but also that of his classmates. But, if you don’t know for sure that this is what will happen, you should at least try it. Then, at least, if things don’t work out, you know you that your decision to move the child to a more restrictive setting is informed and everyone knows that a less restrictive setting proved unsuccessful.  You should never presume the worst automatically when considering placement options.

 

A young man like this might actually benefit from spending at least part of his day in either a Resource Specialist Program (“RSP”) or a Special Day Class (“SDC”) setting. Perhaps, his day would end up being divided among the regular education, RSP, and SDC settings. That’s the thing about placement: you can mix and match components to come up with the most appropriate combination for each individual child. But, this requires flexibility on the part of the public education system and special education placements designed with this mix-and-match type of planning in mind.

 

It has been my unfortunate experience in many situations that placements have been offered by public education agencies based on what they already have in place rather than that necessarily serves as the LRE for a particular student. In fact, almost one year ago, we launched web site devoted to this very issue regarding the schools located in San Luis Obispo County, CA, http://www.slocoesdc.info.

 

This web site was inspired by the cases of children coming from tiny rural K-8 districts in SLO County that only offered placement up to RSP. Students of these tiny districts who needed more intensive placements than RSP usually had only one other choice: a Severely Handicapped SDC operated by the San Luis Obispo County Office of Education (“SLOCOE”). Of course, this wasn’t appropriate if the students weren’t severely handicapped.

 

There were no in-between placements being offered or created to meet the needs of students who needed more than RSP but not so restrictive a level of intervention as a Severely Handicapped SDC. While neighboring districts offered Learning Handicapped SDCs, SLOCOE did not and neither did these children’s home K-8 districts. Some of these children would have been most appropriately placed in a Learning Handicapped SDC but were not placed in these classrooms due to inter-agency politics, even when these Learning Handicapped SDCs were operated on the same campuses as the Severely Handicapped SDCs to which they were being bused every day.

 

When http://www.slocoesdc.info failed to facilitate productive discussions between local schools and parents to address this serious placement issue, KPS4Parents filed a compliance complaint with the California Department of Education (“CDE”) against San Luis Obispo County Special Education Local Plan Area (“SLOSELPA”) alleging that the full continuum of placements was not being made to all the children served by public education agencies within SLOSELPA’s jurisdiction, as is required by State law. The matter remains pending at this time and, according to our last conversations with CDE, its Focused?Monitoring and Technical Assistance?(“FMTA”)?Unit is working with SLOSELPA to address this concern.

 

The point, here, is that placement and the LRE requirements are complex issues that involve constantly changing needs that public education agencies have to address from one school year to the next. Creating cookie-cutter solutions isn’t the answer. There are people working in public education who actually think that placement is (or should be) driven by the IQ score of the student. There remains entrenched in some public education agencies the mentality that actually educating children with special needs is an unachievable goal and an utter waste of time and resources and, as such, warehousing such children and minimizing their expense to the public agency is the most prudent form of administrative stewardship that can be exercised.

 

There are sometimes teachers and other school site staff who just don’t want to have to work as hard as the situation actually requires. So long as they go through the motions and enough kids leave their classrooms knowing at least something more than they knew when they first arrived, these “educators” believe they have earned their paychecks and no one can expect any more of them than that. 

 

I once had a student we represented enrolled in a mainstream computer class where she was receiving a “C” as her grade. She was, however, bombing out all of her other mainstream classes. Thinking that maybe the computer teacher had found some way to get through to her somewhat, we invited him to this young lady’s IEP meeting so he could share his insights with the rest of us. Unfortunately, once he got to the meeting, he admitted that he gave “Cs” to all of the special education students who enrolled in his class because they at least showed up and he didn’t know what else to do with them. The young lady’s special education case carrier, who was also her RSP teacher, was horrified. 

 

There wasn’t much need for me to stick around after that. The school site special education team jumped all over the situation, reassessed this young lady to figure out what was going on, and developed a much more appropriate IEP after that.

 

Reassessment is often a perfectly appropriate way to respond to a failed placement. If a special education program fails, it’s because there was a variable that either wasn’t known or was ignored as was, therefore, left unaddressed. In many instances, the variable simply was not identified, making reassessment or additional assessment necessary.

 

Everything in special education is dependent upon thorough, accurate assessment data. It’s the foundation upon which present levels are identified, goals are written, services are selected, and placement is chosen.? Assessment conducted in an effort to ascertain why a child is not responding to intervention should include observations and analyses of the settings in which the child is succeeding and not succeeding. That way, when the IEP team sits down to revise the IEP, it has data about all kinds of things that will help in determining what placement is the LRE.

Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych. on Linkedin
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne M. Zachry, M.A. Ed. Psych.
Anne has worked as a special education and disability resource lay advocate since 1991 and as a paralegal to attorneys working in special education and disability rights law since 2005. She earned her master's degree in educational psychology in 2013, with emphasis on human development, learning and memory, evidence-based instruction, and educational program design and evaluation. She has received additional training in mediation and post-graduate studies in applied behavioral analysis and individualized educational data collection methodologies.

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