Making a Placement Decision Deciding on the least Restrictive Environment

Prior to the 1960s, children with disabilities had few rights in the arena of public education.  Children who were deemed too low functioning to benefit from public schools were often expelled, as were children who presented with behavioral issues or physical disabilities that were considered too disruptive to the classroom.

A series of legislative acts were enacted in the latter half of the 20th century to ensure that children with disabilities had the right to receive a free, appropriate, public education.  One of the most influential of these acts was The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004.

Among other things, IDEA 2004 mandates that students with special needs must be educated in the least restrictive environment conducive to learning, and must be educated in settings with children who do not have disabilities to the maximum extent possible.  In other words, whenever possible, students with disabilities must be integrated into regular classroom settings. 

This is usually done along some sort of continuum, depending on the needs of the student.  For example, the child may spend the majority of the day in the regular classroom, but receive tutoring or one-on-one instruction.  In other cases, the child may spend recess and lunch with the regular classroom but receive more intensive, specialized services throughout the rest of the day.

There are numerous combinations of services that can be implemented, but how can schools determine which combination is the right one?  And what if, in meeting the needs of the student with a disability, the needs of the other students are somehow unmet?

Luckily, there are several judicial guidelines that can be used when determining the appropriate level of placement for a child with disabilities.  The first case involved a 9 year old boy, Neil Roncker, who presented with mild mental retardation.  The school district determined he needed placement in a special school.  The parents disagreed, and the U. S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth District agreed with the Ronckers. 

This decision led to the development of the Roncker Portability Test, which asks if the supports provided by a segregated placement can be provided in an integrated setting.  If the needed supports can be provided in a general education classroom, the student must be educated in a general education classroom.

The second case involved a six year old child named Daniel, who attended pre-kindergarten classes for half a day in a general education setting and half a day in a special education setting.  Midway through the year the teacher recommended that Daniel be placed full-time in a segregated special education classroom, with opportunities for interaction with other children at recess and at lunch. 

The teacher felt that Daniel was not benefiting from the general education curriculum.  In addition to this, the other children were also unable to learn due to the attention the teacher had to give to Daniel.  Other parents were complaining that in an effort to meet Daniel’s educational needs, the educational needs of the other students in the class were not being met.

Daniel’s parents disagreed with this decision, and the case went to circuit court.  Ultimately, it was determined that in some cases, segregated placement may be appropriate.  The Daniel Two-Part Test, resulting from the court case, asks first if general classroom education is possible with supplementary aids and services.  If not, the test then asks if the student is integrated to the maximum extent possible when placed in a more restrictive setting.

The Rachel Four-Factor Test resulted from a case involving eleven year old Rachel Holland.  Rachel attended several special education programs in her school district.  Her parents asked that she be mainstreamed full-time into a general education classroom, but the district felt that her disabilities were too severe to allow for this placement. 

After a lengthy battle, the district court ruled in favor of the Holland family, basing the ruling on four factors:  (a)  the general education classroom, with supplementary aids and services, would benefit Rachel just as well as a special classroom, (b) Rachel’s nonacademic needs, such as self-esteem and peer interaction, were better met in the general education classroom, (c) Rachel’s presence in the classroom was not disruptive to the teacher or the other students, and (d) the cost of mainstreaming Rachel did not exceed the cost of providing services in both the general education classroom and the special education program. 

The Hartmann Three-Part Test involved eleven year old Mark Hartmann.  Mark, diagnosed with autism, was placed in a general education classroom with multiple supports provided, including a full-time aide, speech therapy, and additional instruction with a special education teacher. 

In spite of these supports, Mark’s behaviors were extremely disruptive to the class, resulting in five families asking to have their children placed in a different classroom.  The district determined that Mark would be better served in a special program for autistic children, housed at the elementary school.  His parents disagreed, citing IDEA.  

Ultimately, the case was decided by the U. S. Court of Appeals at the Fourth Circuit, which determined that integration into a general education classroom is not appropriate when (a) the student will not benefit educationally from the general education classroom, (b) any benefit from the general education classroom would be outweighed by benefits that could be obtained in a special education setting, and (c) the student is disruptive to the general education classroom.  

As demonstrated by these cases, several factors must be considered when determining the most appropriate services for a student with special needs.  First, are the needs of the student with special needs being met?  And second, are the needs of the other students being met as well?  Both must be considered in order to ensure a free, appropriate, public education for all children.