If you have been spending any time at all in the special education community, whether as a parent, educator, or other professional, you have likely heard the term “least restrictive environment,” commonly referred to as “LRE.” This provision of the IDEA 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…”
The reason this language was necessary is that, at the time the federal special education laws were enacted, children with disabilities were excluded from attending our public schools.
It is easy to forget that less than forty years ago, most kids with disabilities were prohibited from attending public school. Not denied appropriate services; literally not allowed to go! This was one of the key purposes of the original Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which is now the IDEA. The LRE provision gets to the heart of this type of exclusion. One of the major goals of the IDEA is to make sure that children with disabilities are guaranteed access to the public schools, and that they are not removed or separated from their regular education peers.
However, a child’s special education program must always be appropriate, LRE provisions notwithstanding.
Sadly, the LRE provision has over the years developed from a shield for children with special education needs, to a sword for school districts who are trying to avoid the costs associated with providing more restrictive environments. What I regularly encounter in my Connecticut Special Education law practice are cases where families believe their child requires a self-contained program (whether in the public schools or in a private placement), and the administration uses the LRE mandate as their defense as to why they shouldn’t have to provide it. “Oh no, we can’t place him at that private special education school, that would violate his right to attend the Least Restrictive Environment.” Yes, I’m sure it’s the burning concern about the child’s rights that is motivating this decision, not the price tag.
A student must be educated in the Least Restrictive APPROPRIATE Environment to meet his or her special education needs.
For some kids at certain points in their lives, a more restrictive environment might be necessary. This is why the IDEA specifically contemplates very restrictive placements. The cases which interpret the IDEA have made this point over and over again, and have ordered special education placements at very restrictive programs when necessary, including hospitals and residential schools. And yet, still, I hear “LRE, LRE, LRE, LRE” every time a client of mine is arguing that their child can not succeed in the mainstream.
Maybe things would change if we all started saying “LREA” instead of “LRE”; the focus should always be on what is appropriate for the child.
In my experience, almost all parents would like nothing more than for their child to be able to be successful attending their neighborhood public school. Believe me, it would be far preferable to what many of my clients have to do to secure appropriate services for their kids, such as driving all over the place to bring their child to various professionals or a private school many miles away because their school district isn’t offering necessary special education support. Inclusion is and should be the goal for all children with disabilities. But when a family and outside professionals have determined that a more restrictive environment is necessary, that may be what is appropriate for that child at that time.